Do black lives matter in leadership?

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If you are sensitive to topics of race, it’s probably because our society has sugar coated this stuff for too long. Time to start ripping the band-aid off.

It’s sad, but true. The higher a black person goes in an organization, the less of his or her own they see. Does it matter, when it comes to that black person’s ability to lead the group? In corporate America, other races don’t face this question on the same magnitude as black people for two reasons. First, most American born black people are descendants of slaves. With that comes the long-lasting, unspoken, internal stigma of slavery and it’s most common themes (misconception and generalization that black people are lazy and not very smart). So whether you come from Africa, the Caribbean or somewhere else, if you have brown skin, you get lumped into this group. This is fueled by the second reason. The perpetual contribution of today’s media, which more often than not, highlights the down-trodden, pants-sagging, poorly educated black person. And who can blame the media? The supply of this person is plentiful and entertaining to some, well worth the ratings.  When one considers these things and the effect they have on mainstream society, I think the question is fair. Can a black person effectively lead a group, at higher levels of an organization, given the mainstream perception? Let’s explore that. But first, let’s qualify the question a little more, by comparing black people to other minorities in the workplace.

Let’s define “minority” as a Latino, Asian, Middle European or any other person that has tan to brown pigmented skin and is not considered a white male. Say this person attains a level of responsibility in an organization, where they will lead a group of mostly white people. My argument is that these individuals will initially be viewed with a different level of respect, than would be given to a black person in the same post. Each cultural segment in the list above will be granted certain “permissions”, according to generalizations about their culture. This is not right, but it happens all the time. Latino’s are hard workers, Asians are good with numbers and data, Middle Europeans and Australians are savvy or exotic, etc. It’s not the same level of respect given to white Americans in the same position, but it’s a level of respect not given cavalierly to black people. Even those from the Middle East are believed to be smart, and they’ve got to overcome the whole “terrorist” thing. Let’s not forget the battle of the sexes either, as women don’t have an easy road in this situation.  Black people, however, are viewed through a very skeptical lens when beginning a new leadership role, especially if they have no prior history with the organization or its members. The lasting stigma of slavery mixed with media portrayals of black people, fuel this situation as noted above. Sad, but true.

Because of this, other minority groups are sometimes given an “invisible” head start. In the mindset and worldview of the group they are leading, they are bringing something to the table that can be built on. They are viewed through the lens of “let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.”

Make no mistake, I am not taking anything away from people who work hard, build companies and give others an opportunity. I’m also not begrudging the people (minority or otherwise) who take those opportunities and capitalize on them. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t chances for all minorities to rise up and become the CEO of any organization. I am not a subscriber to the belief that minorities and black people are only victims without chances to improve themselves or their communities. Personal accountability needs to become “a thing”, especially in the black community. A white man isn’t always “holding them down”. Most times, white men need to earn their stripes too, simply based on the fact that there are so many of them competing. Unless their Dad owns the company. And if Dad owns the business or gives them a million dollar loan, it’s what they do with that opportunity. I get it, especially in America. The capitalist society and current set-up makes it possible for those with the drive, opportunity and tenacity to win. Possible, but not easy. They still have to woo customers and build a sustainable brand, overcome competition, etc.

You may be saying, c’mon, in 2016 is this really an issue? I mean, we have a black president and there are many respectful representations of black people on T.V. Even in the world of comedy, we all laugh at skits that take on race in a very real way. We all know that every type of person exists in each culture. Music stars, doctors, scientists, actors, janitors, murderers, etc., we all can all lay claim to several. But, when you only have one or two black people above a certain level in an organization, everything I made note of above comes into play in a very dynamic way. This is such a deeply rooted truth, that our first reaction is to deny it’s very existence. But we know, deep down, it’s true.

Another sad truth is that even if all of the above things aren’t happening, some black people believe they either are happening or have the potential to happen. All of the stereotypes, all of the prejudice, etc. Even if they never say it, they believe it deep down. But they won’t ever say anything, because in their mind, they’d be labeled as “that black person”. You know, the militant, race card pulling type. So if a black person thinks this, even if it isn’t true, isn’t perception reality for them? Think about that…

The only way to defeat these thought patterns is to expose them, not soft shoe around them. So let’s continue ripping the band aid off. Here is a practical example followed by simple suggestions to make black lives matter in leadership.

Let’s say Tim (a white middle manager who makes a high salary in corporate) suddenly has a black team member or boss, let’s call him Brian. Brian may be the only interaction Tim has with a black person, other than T.V., on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. So for Brian to be effective and lead the group, in light of the above arguments, several things must be understood by both Tim and Brian. No matter how much we like to pretend that we don’t need the following lists, unfortunately, some of us do.

Tim must;
1. Avoid stereotypes. – All black people don’t like fried chicken, watermelon and rap, and it doesn’t make them any less black if they don’t.
2. Get to know this person on a personal level. – Don’t joke with Brian about the latest “Black Jeopardy” skit on SNL if Brian isn’t into that. Get to know him.
3. Comment on tough social issues respectfully and thoughtfully. – Who knows what side of the fence Brian is on regarding, “Black lives matter” or Colin Kaepernick. Respect garners respect. Folks can disagree on tough issues without being disagreeable.
4. Don’t try to relate unnecessarily. – Brian doesn’t care that your cousin is married to a black person. He also doesn’t care that you had a black guy in your high school clique. It does not make Brian trust you more, but quite the opposite. Brian will see this as strange behavior.
5. Treat Brian the same as any boss you’ve ever had. – It should be this way anyway, but for some people it may be tough. And it doesn’t mean they are racist, it just means they have a different worldview.

Brian must;
1. Stay true to himself. – He cannot constantly think that people are treating him a certain way because he is black. If anything, he should focus on practical causes and solutions to problems. If he gets feedback that says he is ineffective, maybe he’s just ineffective.
2. Be confident, competent and continuously learn his craft. – This will become very important as time goes on. His confidence and competence, mixed with a strong work ethic can overcome any barrier. People will see and respect that.
3. Understand that it will take time to gain respect from the group. – Brian can’t be “thin-skinned”. He probably isn’t, if he’s earned a leadership role at a higher level, but this needs to be said. Brian will encounter someone who will break all of the “musts” for Tim listed above. Brian must react properly. Another way of saying this is, he shouldn’t take himself so seriously.
4. Respect everyone. – Coming outside of his character in an attempt to “keep it real” will have a more negative impact for Brian, than it will improve the situation. Most educated people will respect, respect. Yes I meant to type that twice.
5. Understand the racial dynamic and rise above it. – Even if Brian senses that something is amiss, due to race, he must exhaust everything in his power to identify and rectify, before going to HR. That should be his last resort. If he goes to HR and the issue is small or not present, it will label him as someone who “pulls the race card”. As Sweet Brown once said, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”
6. Get results. – Whatever his corporations goals are, he needs to develop clear associated goals and attain results towards the expected end. If he doesn’t, it doesn’t matter what race or cultural background he comes from, he will be labeled ineffective and therefore not a leader.

In summary, Brian needs to follow the blueprint of any good leader. Regardless of race, he can overcome and effectively lead the group. It may be harder due to the existing hurdle of the initial, “viewpoint” of his colleagues or his perception of it’s existence. But it is possible nonetheless. Also, his team needs to give him a real chance.

So what do you think? Does this have merit?  What about outside of America?  Is this true, without the influence of slavery on the societal mindset towards black people?

 

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