When I was little (and maybe not so little) we played a simple game called “Follow The Leader.” Maybe you have played it too. One person is picked as the “leader” and everyone else lines up and follows the leader around, mimicking whatever the leader does. It’s a simple game, but it has very important ramifications. I was talking to a friend the other day and they said, “Behaviors always follow the leader. If the leader is open, then that community tends toward discussion, but if the leader is shut off, then the people tend to silo.”
Part of this phenomena is the result of transference. When people see things in a leader that they relate to from their own experiences, they transfer some of their own identity to that leader, and then they are more likely to follow them. This motivation to follow is both conscious and subconscious. Conscious motivators are relatively easy to identify. They include the desire to gain money, status or power, and also the fear of missing out. The subconscious motivators are often more influential and come from the powerful images and emotions from our experiences that we project onto our relationships with leaders.
Once we identify with a leader, we are likely to mimic them in some, if not many, ways. We literally “Follow The Leader.” If we do not identify with a leader, we tend to dismiss their leadership (and often their ideas and mission.) Leaders tend to attract followers that are similar to themselves in significant ways including lived experience and values, and in less important yet still significant ways like race.
Winston Churchill said, “The price of greatness is responsibility.”
If you are a leader, you carry a significant responsibility. Leaders are responsible for the bent of their followers. If you are the leader of a company, the tone and culture of that community will reflect your character and behavior. Furthermore, it is rare for a community to exceed the commitments of its leadership. People rarely go where they are not led.
Leadership can also be defined (good or bad) by what is not done, not shown, and not said. Good leadership does not ridicule, belittle, or publicly discipline the people they serve. Good leadership does not attempt to please everyone or respond to every whim or whisper. Good leadership lets others talk and listens for (and promotes) the greatness they see in them.
Sometimes though, leaders are silent when they should speak. In so doing, they may lead the people they serve to be silent too. This is bad leadership, and is the case with the crisis we are facing in our communities today. It is time for leaders to lead. It is time for leaders from all races, all creeds, and all communities to use their influence and access to speak up and add their voice to the search for solutions.
As is true for any other crisis or opportunity, we need to be informed, thoughtful and humble as we approach the issue of systemic racism in our social, economic, and justice institutions. For me, this started with listening and seeking to understand. Can I listen to another person and come to understand their view, feelings, and concerns, even if I don’t agree with them?
I often wonder why we are so afraid to honestly and completely listen to what another person thinks and feels. Are my own views and feelings so fragile that they will be destroyed if I seek to understand someone else’s? Is my identity so tied to my opinions that I cannot risk being undone by someone with information that disrupts my view? Am I that afraid of being uncomfortable? Am I afraid that hearing someone else’s lived experience will cause me to change or act? Do I simply not value other people enough to grant them the respect of being heard?
I do not have solutions for the crisis facing our nation today. I know some things that are NOT going to get us closer to understanding and respect. Social media posts, period. Comments (which betray beliefs) that show a lack of understanding about the issues (for example, saying things like, “All lives matter.”) Comments that demonstrate a lack of empathy for people who have significantly different experiences then I do (for example, saying, “The word ‘racist’ is thrown around so much these days it no longer means anything.”)
There are some things that I CAN do that will make a difference.
First, I can reflect on my own faults. How have I caused or allowed other people to be devalued because they are different than me?
I can listen. In fact, until I have listened long and well, I should probably not speak.
I can educate myself. There is plenty to read and watch if one wants to understand the history and complexity of racism and how racism shows up today (hint: NONE of it is on Facebook.)
I can challenge other people. I can be someone who holds people accountable when they do and say things that are disrespectful and devaluing to others. As leaders, we have a responsibility to move the people we serve from where they are to where they should be. The first person we must lead is ourselves. If we are not moving towards equally valuing all people, then we cannot lead others to do the same. It is necessary for leaders to demonstrate what they believe through their words and actions. In this day, being silent is not an option. Remember, you are the leader, and people are following you. Will you be proud when they mimic the way you are leading? A leader who guides people to value others equally in both thought and action is one who is worth following and is also a leader in The Kimray Way.