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A Challenge

Charlottesville, Virginia

June 9, 2020

The following post is based on a blog post by Gary Burnison at Korn Ferry. As usual, I found his post inspiring and thought provoking. I have taken the liberty of modifying his post slightly to incorporate my thoughts.


I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything; but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

This quotation is by Edward Everett Hale, a 19th century social reformer and minister. It has taken on new meaning for me over the past few weeks. It is a call to action, a call to make a difference.

Confronting inequality in America -- in fact in the whole world -- requires far more than a pledge, writing a check, or issuing a statement. That’s a start, but it really takes understanding, empathy, honesty, love -- and then action.

I am deeply saddened by the senseless killing of George Floyd and emotional about all of the resulting demonstrations that have been held throughout the world. Some chose to focus on "systematic racism." I think the issue is larger than that - it is the inequality that so many of us face - be it due to race, economics, gender, religion, physical appearance. You can't get much worse than killing someone - whether they look like you or not. But isn't the bigger issue here that there is so much inequality in our society? That if you are born in inner city Baltimore, you very likely will not have the same chances in life as someone born in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Pain, anger, rage, frustration, exhaustion…

These are words that I associate with inequality.

I've asked myself: What can I as the leader of my own life - and as potential leader of others, do about it?

Leadership is inspiring others to believe and enabling that belief to become reality.

Leadership is never about you, but it starts with you -- you can never improve a team or an organization unless you first improve yourself. When I think of “leadership,” I’ve always thought empower, not power. Except on this issue.

Confronting inequality can’t be outsourced or delegated. This change must start from the top, with commitment and intentionality. Once leaders make it safe for others to speak, the ideas of how to affect change will bubble up from within. But then change and action must be driven top-down.

No one, I believe, is born to hate. Rather, I think it’s quite the opposite: we’re born to love. But over time, biases form, even unconsciously. We all have biases to some degree. The only one that is excusable is the one about Virginia Tech. 🤪 Unless we become aware and have the courage to confront our biases, we will be at risk of staying silent and perpetuating the problem. This is a time for honesty and action.

Here are some imperfect thoughts:

It starts with you. My thinking continues to evolve, even from what I thought three weeks ago. Unless leaders make this personal, change will not happen. Leaders have the voice, platform, and influence to ignite the kind of dialogue that leads to meaningful change. Inequality is one of the most complicated and complex problems imaginable, but it still requires an action plan—that starts with commitment and action from the top.

Revisit purpose. Purpose comes next. For each of us, this goes to the quote, “The purpose of life is a life of purpose.”

Put values into action. Values need to guide every decision and our behavior—especially when no one is looking. Values aren’t just words; they’re the underpinning of our day-to-day actions. Today presents a perfect opportunity to reassess your values and purpose and put them into action.

Step on the glass. The difference between hearing and listening is comprehension. We need to be vulnerable and empathetic. Don’t just react to the emotionality of the words—focus instead on understanding and owning the context and intent behind them. The fact is, when it comes to conversations about inequality, people feel like they’re walking on glass. My view is that the glass has already been broken—so step on it and have direct conversations. If your intentions are good and you want to make a positive impact, even if you don’t use the right word, trust that others will correct you—and embrace that feedback when they do. Better to say something and risk making a mistake than stay silent, which can be interpreted as complicity.

Hear with empathy. Action starts with empathy for each other and our experiences.

Connect. It starts with our networks and personal lives—who are our friends? Who are the people in our circle of interaction and support?

Develop. Promote. Sponsor.  No one knows their true potential unless they’re given opportunities. To provide equality of opportunity, leaders must activate real and tangible sponsorship. Sponsors are different from mentors, who are best thought of as someone who takes others under their wings and helps them learn. Sponsors champion others.

Everywhere we look, there are questions, but few answers. Yet we know that talk won’t

solve anything without action. This brings us back to the closing line of Hale’s quotation: 

I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

What is the something you can do? And what's holding you back?

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