Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes a weekly column about leadership, diversity, equality and more exclusively for WRAL TechWire. It is published on Wednesdays.  This week’s column is an edited republication of one Donald Thompson’s most popular pieces from early 2021.  


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – “Why are we comfortable celebrating Black people as performers and athletes but not as leaders?” That’s the question a good friend asked me recently, and it’s been hanging around my mind ever since. As we kick off Black History Month 2022, I’ve been reflecting on the stereotypes of Black excellence in modern America, and so has my team at The Diversity Movement, with conversations around active allyship and the current state of being Black in America

To cut right down to the core of the problem, I think we spend too much time talking about performers and athletes in general. Lebron James, Tiger Woods, Cicely Tyson, Denzel Washington, Beyonce — those are common household names. But Marvin Ellison, Roz Brewer, Bozoma Saint John, Brenda Mallory and Victor Glover? They’re each at the very top of their fields, but they’re still unknown by the majority of us. Certainly, there are lots of complex and intersectional social issues at play, but rather than explaining how we got here, let’s talk about where we go now. 

With a growing number of Black leaders across science, technology, construction, retail, marketing, healthcare and all the other major American industries, we have a fantastic opportunity to highlight Black excellence at work. What is it, and who is doing it best? Which examples are we holding up for our children as we redefine what it means to be successful? 

Great leaders need to be great managers too – here’s the difference 

The answer lies in our definition of impact. If we want to raise children and young adults who work hard and use their failures as learning opportunities, we have to show them what’s actually achievable because the truth is that being a professional actor, musician, or athlete is exceptionally unlikely. Instead of celebrating Denzel as an actor, we should emphasize his work in philanthropy. Instead of celebrating what Lebron does on the court, let’s talk more often about his charitable work. Let’s talk about Beyonce as a powerful CEO, not only as a stage performer.   

When we do that, we amplify the traits that really matter. We start to look around for more Black people who are doing hard work that makes a real social impact. Instead of celebrating Black success in mostly unattainable jobs, we start to celebrate the healthcare workers, teachers, public servants, engineers, and business leaders who are out there right now, forging paths we can actually follow. 

Three local examples are Judge Aretha Blake, the District Court Judge in Mecklenburg County who won 100% of her district in 2020; Dr. Dudley Flood, a former educator and administrator who was instrumental in desegregating NC schools; and Pitt County Sheriff Paula Dance who has spent her whole life working in public service. We find more Black Principals, Black CMOs, Black restaurant owners, entrepreneurs, writers, nurses, data analysts and farmers.

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Here, I think I’d be remiss not to mention what it’s like to be Black in most of America—what Black excellence usually means. It’s what Kiese Laymon calls “Black abundance” and what Time Magazine describes as “an economic lifeline.” It’s what Black parents have been telling their children for decades: if you want to keep your place on the team, you need to over-perform. Be so excellent they can’t ignore you. In a way, Black excellence is a survival strategy, and that’s important because as The Atlantic puts it “Black Workers Really Do Need to Be Twice as Good.” 

But doesn’t that mean these powerful examples have earned at least twice the applause and recognition? 

These local examples inspire me to view Black history in a different light and to examine my own personal impact on the story of Black people in business as well. As you wind down your Black History Month celebrations, remember that February shouldn’t be the only time you recognize the contributions of Black Americans to our society. Black history is American history after all.

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If you’re looking for powerful ways to integrate diverse stories and histories into your workplace, my team at The Diversity Movement has put together a Black History Month Programming Guide with recommendations on how your organization can recognize Black history throughout the year. 

When you learn about someone you want to celebrate, someone who inspires you to make a bigger impact, I hope you’ll share their story with me on LinkedIn. Let’s amplify them together. 

About the Author 

Donald Thompson is an entrepreneur, public speaker, author, podcaster, Certified Diversity Executive (CDE) and executive coach. With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, he is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture, and driving exponential growth. He is also co-founder and CEO of The Diversity Movement, a results-oriented, data-driven strategic partner for organization-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives recently named to Inc. Magazine’s 2021 Best in Business List in DE&I Advocacy. Donald serves as a board member for several organizations in marketing, healthcare, banking, technology and sports. Connect with him on Linkedin or at donaldthompson.com