When I fled Hurricane Katrina, most of my energy went toward redirecting conversations. The ignorance I often encountered from outsiders was astounding. The assumption was that every New Orleans resident was Black, ignorant, and looting. Sound familiar? We face a similar challenge now, as we have a two-ply international crisis: The Covid-19 pandemic and, more sharply, the civil discourse happening around George Floyd's murder at the hands of Minneapolis police.
As a leader, you can't avoid the conversation. No, all of us, including you, can't just "focus on the work." If you are leading, this is the work. And none of us are leading people unaffected by it -- even if you don't have African-Americans in your business, in your customer base, or in your life.
Here are suggestions on how you can support your staff and those around you.
Treat it as an international tragedy -- because it is.
Remember the hushed tones we heard after 9/11? Well, we're navigating international waters now. Catch the worldwide headlines, the multicultural protests across Europe, and the pan-American social media trends.
It's not a Black thing. It is everyone's thing.
The secret? It's always been everyone's thing, including yours.
Now, it means we begin conversations by checking in. It means building buffer into results, as we shouldn't expect pre-unrest results now. To be honest, we should have been doing this when the coronavirus hit. Now, take it down another gear.
Being softer and thoughtful to those you guide doesn't mean weak leadership. It means you actually give a damn about what's happening outside of your limited purview. Isn't that what being a leader means?
You probably don't understand, and don't need to in order to lead.
As a coach, I've guided entrepreneurs and other leaders through painful layoffs, complex funding rounds, and corporate politics, but I've never had to lay someone off, raise funds (my two startups were bootstrapped), or sit in an office cubicle. I will never be able to have everyone's experience. And yet, I still get my clients where they need to go.
You may not know what it's like to be an African-American male threatened by police, to be a parent not able to sleep because you worry for the Brown boys you dedicated your life to raise, or to be unable to reconcile the cognitive distance between the American dream and your dream's purposely being derailed by your own country.
What all of us can do, though, is build empathy. It begins with listening. It ends with strategic support.
Support where you can, how you can.
Supporting those you lead, the community you serve, or a specific group begins with knowing your own privilege. Having shame about your advantages won't help. Turning that platform into leverage with others does help.
If you have the financial resources, then support African-American businesses and leadership and give to organizations that advocate African-American justice, independence, and equity. If you have the ear of non-African Americans, help them take an empathic view and understand how the health of the justice system affects all of us.
I understand even my own privilege as a Northwestern-educated, TED Talking, upwardly-mobile African-American male. I'm sharing my resources appropriately.
As speaker Willie L. Jackson II put it, "Don't be an ally. Be an accomplice." We'd all be better off with more of those -- and may have avoided our current civil crisis in the first place.