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  • August 22, 2017

Stepping Up: Corporate Leaders Post Charlottesville

by Andrés Tapia. Originally published by the Korn Ferry Institute where Andrés is a senior partner.

We live in a time when destination cities–London, Orlando, Barcelona–and quiet communities–Charlottesville, Charleston, San Bernardino– have become shorthand for wrenching mayhem and violence based on hatred.

In the aftermath of blistering bombs, penetrating bullets, and ramming vehicles punctuated by the verbal denigration of people based on their skin color, religion, immigrant status, gender, and sexual orientation, the majority of citizens and—in the corporate world, employees—are paralyzed in how to respond.

This is precisely the kind of time when leaders must step in and step up with courageous leadership and clarity of vision to unfreeze those in their charge to feel supported, have hope, and obtain guidance for how best to move forward.

But where are these leaders? They certainly are not emerging from elected officials. And disappointedly they are not even rising in meaningful numbers from faith-based organizations.

Ironically, some of the most compelling moral, reassuring, and helpful voices in these threatening times are coming from corporate leaders. In the past week, the CEOs of Apple, Merck, Visa, Intel and Wal-Mart were among at least 18 who made unequivocal statements against racism and discrimination and in favor of greater diversity and inclusion.

How to explain this? What we seem to be witnessing is the moment when the millions of dollars invested in diversity and inclusion in the past decades are paying off. These leaders are putting into practice a response that can be summarized by the following four-point plan.

1. Figure out what you believe and stand for.

A growing number of CEOs have staked their personal as well as their corporatereputations by being very clear about their values and what they believe is right and wrong. They fully understand the implications of Nobel Peace Prize Desmond Tutu declaration that “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” In addition most of these CEOs who have spoken directly to current events are part of 150 CEOs who in June 2017 signed a declaration of support for diversity and inclusion.

2. Provide guidance for the conversation.

As we back away from the incendiary headlines, tweets, and chyrons amplifying the voices of the extreme fringes, the majority of citizens and employees hunger for a way to bridge the divides rather than to widen them. The dilemma is that they want to, but don’t know how to.  Leaders must provide the playbook for how to have constructive conversations across differences. The multiple diversity trainings they have sponsored must now be put into action. The techniques, tools and guidelines are all there to clear the fog of doublespeak and neutralize polarization. In the midst of all the shouting in the public square, employees need to be reminded that there are proven ways to have constructive conversations that lead to deeper understanding.

3. Emphasize empathy.

The deep truth about diversity and inclusion is that the goal is not to get to full agreement across our many different ways of being, thinking, or doing. In fact, it’s to understand and actually activate and leverage those very differences for a more engaging, productive, and innovative environment. And to do this we need to better understand how others experience life and work. “Empathy is the capacity to understand that …. someone else’s pain is as meaningful as your own,” said author Barbara Kingsolver. But empathy must be coupled with point No. 1. While there is plenty of room to be empathetic of someone with whom you don’t agree, we’ve got to draw the line when it comes to hatred and the devaluing of others based on who they are.

4. Lead by example.

This is not a time for CEOs and other leaders to allow written statements published in press releases be their only response no matter how forthright and noble-sounding they may be. Leaders must get out in front of their people and talk from the heart about how they are experiencing these times and what they are doing personally to lower the tensions, and role-model how to be empathetic and have the difficult conversations.

If a critical mass of business leaders take these risks of being more authentic, transparent, and courageous they will have the unprecedented opportunity to expand their value propositions well beyond their corporate walls and markets—and, in that, by being inclusive leaders, contribute to keeping our society from shattering because of differences.


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