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What the protests demand of our leaders

If you want to lead right now, you'd better get comfortable with resistance and discomfort.

10 min read


What the protests demand of our leaders

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As an executive coach, I dole out leadership advice rather freely every day. In these last few months since our social order was turned upside down to fight a microscopic organism, I’ve focused on helping my clients deal with off-the-charts uncertainty.

Then, George Floyd was murdered, and the country, already suffering physically, economically, emotionally and politically, has become wracked publicly with grief, confusion and division. The answers to “why such sustained protest now?” are still coming into focus. They reflect anger against systemic discrimination while fueled by currents of frustration over unaddressed inequities.

What are the leadership lessons from this tumult in our country? This is the question that my friend, editor and colleague James daSilva has called me and my leadership colleagues to answer.

The short answer is that I don’t have any answers. We leadership thinkers are used to studying the facts, gathering our experience and offering time-tested advice to address root causes. The reality of today’s Black Lives Matter protests, combined with the ongoing struggles to adapt to the COVID-19 economy, hobbles all three of these tried-and-true approaches to handing out wisdom and perspective. The facts are still emerging on the confluence of events roiling our society today and, as a result, I have no time-tested tips and tricks to offer.

Even so, there are two leadership truths I suggest we lean on to guide us through these crises, personal and social.

Stories, facts and beliefs

There is a popular myth that if we only had the facts, we’d know what to believe, and thus what to do.

In fact, facts do not lead to beliefs, and thus facts could not guide us even if we knew them. Thanks to unconscious bias, no fact stands alone outside the beliefs and biases we bring to it.

The truth is that when we become aware of how our beliefs and biases contribute to how we see facts, we gain control over the stories and beliefs that guide us and those we tell to others to guide them. Whether in a company, nonprofit or a public institution, great leaders do not confuse facts, beliefs and stories; they understand and accept their role in creating the fictions that bind us as an organization and a society.

Whether for the good or ill of others, they find their power in this act of choice to create reality through the stories they tell. When leaders speak and act out of these choices, they help those around them — team members and citizens — find meaning in the mayhem.

A great leader looking at today’s crises knows that the stories our culture has told itself, the beliefs many hold dear, are breaking. These stories, many of which serve and support some of us, no longer fit the facts of everyone’s reality, and they no longer bind us as a society.

The outrage over George Floyd’s murder brings to the surface the inadequacy of the cultural stories our society has relied upon for centuries. Much like the #MeToo movement against sexual violence, anger from many people across parties about income equality since the Great Recession, and the failings of the American Dream that preceded it, our current social unrest is fueled by undercurrents of fear and anxiety that have been too-long ignored.

People who feel they have lost so much they have little else to lose are rejecting the stories too many of our leaders still choose to believe:

  • Story: “All lives matter equally.” (Alternate story: No, all lives don’t matter equally or black people wouldn’t be incarcerated at five times the rate of whites, fall victim to COVID-19 three times more often than whites or be shot and killed twice as often to be killed by police as white people).
  • Story: “Rapists go to prison, and sexual harassers are fired from companies, so sexual harassment and assault is adequately managed.” (Alternate story: Most victims of sexual harassment and assault, regardless of gender, do not speak up or report their aggressors out of justified fears of reprisal. Most police reports of rape do not lead to an arrest, and most arrests do not lead to prosecution or conviction. And so the cycle continues unchecked.)
  • Story: “The American Dream is alive and well. Children are still likely to out-earn their parents.” (Alternate story: Upward mobility in the US has been stagnant for 40 years, and wealth on Wall Street is no longer a reliable indicator of economic health for the average American.)

These dated and faulty stories are just the tip of our breaking iceberg. Great leaders will put them aside and work with people who no longer believe them to create new stories for our time. Stories that make more sense of the facts of people’s lives. Great leaders will co-create these new stories with the people affected. This is how they will find followers and collaborators in their leadership in the years to come.

Leading through change

When I teach change management, the core lesson that enables leaders to succeed is that great leaders receive resistance instead of resisting it. Resistance is a gift to any change effort, because the seeds of resistance hold clues to your success.

Resisting resistance demonstrates a lack of caring for people who want to be part of change. Despite what poor leaders tell themselves about how foolish their followers are, those followers are, in fact, quite smart. They know in their bones when their leaders do not respect them. And this, like with any human being, plants seeds of anger deep within them, fueling their resistance and ensuring their noncompliance.

The key to leading change is to welcome resistance and demonstrate true respect for the resistors. Even where there is disagreement over the hows and whys of change, great leaders still find deep within them basic human respect for others. They still respect other people’s commitment to the change process, even when it’s expressed as resistance, and they find ways to genuinely communicate this respect. This is how healthy competition and conflict lead to great things.

Engaging in conflict while respecting the other is uncomfortable, and it goes well beyond giving lip service to the concerns of those you hope to lead. It requires listening to hear and acknowledge, not check the box and dominate. It requires that the leaders change themselves in order to ensure that larger changes can succeed. Ultimately, it is not about what leaders say, but what they do, that matters most.

When leaders act in ways that demonstrate people’s most legitimate concerns have been heard, and are being accommodated to some degree, this is when the road to real change opens up. That’s what Sheriff Christopher Swanson of Flint, Mich., taught recently when he refused to battle peaceful protestors and joined the march in solidarity against unnecessarily brutal police violence. This is change leadership in action.

What I believe: Being a true ally is uncomfortable — do it anyway

While my professional focus has long been on battling unconscious bias against women in the workplace, in recent years I’ve seen that women’s issues are indistinguishable at their core from discrimination felt by black people, women and men of color, nonbinary genders, nontraditional sexual orientations, the socioeconomically disadvantaged and people with differing abilities.

As my coaching practice has expanded to give me more intersectional insights into the variety of ways we can experience discrimination at work and in life, my heart has grown heavy. I am sad not only because so much human potential squandered permeates the modern workplace, but also because the solutions are so very hard.

I’ve tried to be an effective ally. As a coach, interacting with clients in private and vulnerable 1-to-1 relationships, I succeed more often than not, because I help people find the keys to their personal power. This power is an inexhaustible source of energy fueled by human hardship and the good intention to be our best selves. It lives within us all and never fails us unless we stop calling upon it.

In social, cultural and political contexts, I’m sorry to say that I have failed more often than not. While I hope I’ve avoided becoming a Karen, I have had to become uncomfortably aware of my own white female privilege. I don’t like it. And yet, on the scale of the most to least privileged among us, I’m closer to the top than many of the people I’d like to help. As a leader, adviser and citizen, I’m still learning and don’t pretend to know how to solve the problems we’re all facing, short of reaching out when I see a chance to help and using my voice when I can.

On this personal journey, here’s what I’ve come to believe about how great leaders everywhere can help heal the rifts currently tearing us apart.

  • When the subject is privilege, the more privileged among us must do more listening than speaking. We must put our own stories aside long enough to understand others’.
  • When the subject is power, the more powerful among us can do more, and so we must. Take it from Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben if you won’t take it from me, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The powerful would do well to take this wisdom to heart.

And this leads to my last lesson on leadership from today’s struggles: Now is the time for great leaders to lead. Many are stepping up, but too many of their colleagues in government and private industry are fighting their attempts to lead what is instead of what they wish could be.

Too many people we call “leaders” are so busy spinning the stories they want to believe and not giving weight to how those stories are failing the people they hope will follow them.

So here is my call to all leaders at all levels.

  • Welcome this resistance. Lean into your discomfort until you break a little. Sit in your discomfort and with the discomfort of others until you truly understand their pain and can acknowledge it alongside your own.
  • Respect those willing to make you uncomfortable as they work to help you understand what great leadership can look like for today’s reality and tomorrow’s possibility.
  • Tell the stories that truly bring us together and show us a way forward.
  • Take the actions that show you, too, are willing to change and become the leader that a better tomorrow demands of you.

With apologies to Gandhi, be the change the world needs from you even if it’s different from the change you wish to see in the world. We’re all counting on you, and the time is now.


Dana Theus is an executive and organizational coach. A thought leader on change, she cracks the code on personal power in the workplace for individual and corporate clients. In addition to her private practice, Theus helps organizations hone their leadership cultures into a competitive advantage. Follow her on Twitter @DanaTheus and on LinkedIn.

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