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My leadership journey started at home

A longtime corporate executive shares why her parents' influence was so powerful and what it means for diversity and inclusion efforts.

6 min read


My leadership journey started at home


Leaders come in different shapes, sizes and from different places. Not everyone came into the workplace, took a few management and leadership training programs and then overcame the organizational quagmire to get ahead. Leaders also are not always located at the top of the organization. Having an executive title doesn’t necessarily qualify you to be a good leader.

Good leaders come from a multitude of places. Where you sit in your company, agency, firm, department or community does not dictate whether you can be a leader or not. I say this because I had the opportunity to learn about leadership early in my life. The best leaders that I have ever known were my parents.

You may read this and think, “How can someone who has spent over 30 years in corporate America and has seen literally hundreds of leaders come and go throughout her career say that the best leaders she knew were her parents? After all, she’s from a small steel mill town where her father was a teacher, principal and administrator, and her mother was a stay-at-home mom who didn’t even have a job.”

These things are all true. Throughout my career, I have worked with hundreds of leaders, some of them have been role models and mentors from whom I have learned much. However, my most impactful leadership lessons I learned from my parents.

My father was one of the first African American teachers and principals in western Pennsylvania during the late 1950s and 1960s, when civil rights was still in its infancy. It was a time characterized by major campaigns of civil resistance, acts of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience, producing crisis situations and dialogues between activists and government authorities.

His passion for diversity, equity and inclusion was channeled through a fierce discipline and strong work ethic. He didn’t allow himself to be distracted, and he moved forward with his goals to strive for equal rights for himself, his students and those teachers and administrators of color who were to come after him.

As the CEO of our family, he fought for the rights of his “employees” to make sure that the world we went out into was one where we were prepared to fight and endure any aspects of disparity that we encountered. Because his children went to a neighboring school district and not his own, he initiated meetings with our teachers, coaches and any other administrators who he felt were not approaching their responsibility as leaders in an equitable fashion.

I never once saw my father raise his voice in any of these discussions, but he was very direct and clear in his expectations as it pertained to his children. He demonstrated some of the strongest traits of leadership: Inner strength and patience, self-confidence, a strong desire to drive change.

My mother was not a corporate executive. She did not start her own company. But she was one of the most formidable forces I have ever known. She was the chief operating officer, the chief financial officer and the chief HR officer of one of the toughest organizations across many decades: our family household.

During those hard days when my father would come home and be tired from the continuous battle against inequities throughout the day, she would comfort him. She would also provide counsel and tell him that it was going to be all right. She would energize him because she knew that when he left the house the next day, he needed to be armed and ready to fight yet again.

As the CFO, she made sure that the organization had sufficient funds to operate. My father came home and gave the check to my mother. She made sure it was spread out so she could pay the bills, put food on the table and clothes on our backs. As the CHRO, she made sure that all employees were working together well. She conducted ongoing performance reviews of her five children on a daily basis, providing creative and effective “feedback” to ensure optimal performance.

My mother led with skills of empathy, results orientation and efficiency while creating an environment of psychological safety for all of us.

So, you can see, I may have come from a small town, but I was surrounded by leaders who were role models for the type of person I aspired to be. They both exemplified very critical leadership skills: empathy, results orientation, efficiency, Inner strength and patience, self-confidence, a strong desire to drive change.

What it means to lead D&I

As leader of a global diversity and inclusion organization, the attributes demonstrated by my father and mother are extremely important. It’s important to have inner strength to be able to push the D&I agenda forward in organizations in the face of adversity and competing priorities.

Many times, a heavy hand wrapped around a bullhorn in loud protest is not always the answer. Often, it is best to listen with empathy and to seek to understand the adversity and the obstacle, and then whittle away at it until everyone is working together to drive change.

Patience is critical because, when we talk about global diversity and inclusion, we are talking about changing cultures and behaviors. Organizational change does not happen overnight. It takes perseverance to plot a course and every day, stay the course until your results are achieved.

Self-confidence is important because not everyone is going to believe in your vision as a D&I leader. There are always those who will question you and pick apart your ideas and solutions, but if you have confidence, you will be able to continue to move your vision forward.

Finally, both my parents had an abundance of faith which they instilled in me. Faith is a very important foundation for the work in diversity, equity and inclusion — faith that your journey will end in success. Because it’s not about you. It’s about the employees who are counting on you to create a culture where all can feel valued, engaged and empowered to succeed.


Celeste Warren is vice president, global diversity & inclusion center of excellence, at Merck & Co.

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