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Why are leadership thinkers silent about Floyd and the protests?

The killing of George Floyd and everything that’s resulted from it should be a prime leadership teaching moment for people who write about that sort of thing, but most aren't sharing an opinion -- any opinion. That's not a good thing.

10 min read


Why are leadership thinkers silent about Floyd and the protests?

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The killing of George Floyd and everything that’s resulted from it should be a prime leadership teaching moment for people who write and speak about that sort of thing.

After all, there are endless angles. Politics is part of this, but politics is not a prerequisite for writing cogently on topics such as conflict resolution, crisis communication or how trust is won or lost in communities.

You can make analogues to the workplace or you can directly address workplace issues. You can reflect on how the crisis has affected you or people you know. There is literally no end to the options.

And yet, I see relatively few people in the leadership/coaching community doing so.

How do I know this? Well, I use the website Feedly to track probably 200 leadership websites and blogs that we use here to search the SmartBrief on Leadership newsletter. Some of these are large, nationally known magazines, while many more are smaller blogs.

I looked through that collection on Saturday night.

Just one mention of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery or Breonna Taylor in the past week, a short post mostly noting the news. Only one use of the word “protest,” a passing mention with an unrelated context in a different article. I recall similar hesitation to mention other societal, cultural and political touchpoints of the past several years, though I would want to check my memory against the archives.

Why does this matter? Here’s my perspective:

  1. These are experts in handling difficulty. Leadership/management writers, coaches and consultants might not know what to say, but their livelihood is predicated on their declared expertise in helping people and organizations improve — and in embracing and overcoming difficult situations. This is one of those situations for millions of people.
  2. These are smart people who care about helping people. I like them, and I learn from their advice and wisdom, as do so many of us. And so we need that expertise now. Sure, these experts have blind spots, but they want to make lives better. Not every problem can be solved by a great business leader, granted. However, if you improve the workplace, you improve the long-term well-being (and maybe the health) of people during the majority of their waking hours.
  3. Leadership writers rarely shy away from other hot topics. Like everyone else,they love to talk about business scandals or any actions by a CEO they like or don’t like. Protests, violence, curfews and even the possibility of martial law in some cities certainly rise to the level of a “business” concern.
  4. Niches can find a way to incorporate current events. What about experts with a really narrow niche that prevents them from addressing this type of topic? I still think there’s room for them.
  5. Silence is also a message. We all know how powerful words and actions can be when they come from leaders and other influential people. The rest of us are empowered — or cowed — by those words. Leaders and thinkers who say nothing also send a message.

I hope I can explain briefly why I’m especially challenging leaders, coaches and consultants on this topic, and explain the ideas listed above.

First, I’ll share an example of someone who has said something.

Michael Hyatt is one of those leadership experts who can’t avoid this topic because his business is literally based on his expertise and distilled insights. His homepage as of Saturday night said, “We Can Help You Lead Through Crisis,” to boot.

So, he did address Floyd’s death on Instagram. He doesn’t have to pretend to have the answers. He does the best he can in a couple of minutes, shares what he considered basic truths and how he will try to improve.

That short video is not everything, but it’s something. And something is a start — especially when leading through crisis is your calling card, as inevitably is the case with any leadership expert.

I should also note Ryan Estis, who I’ve interviewed for this blog, on Sunday dedicated his weekly newsletter to his reflections, including as a Minneapolis resident.

Coronavirus, but not this crisis?

Notice how no one is having difficulty writing about the coronavirus, which at first blush is nothing more than a public health matter. Yet, it’s not hard to figure out that it’s a business crisis and something any manager, HR executive or human capital expert should be concerned with.

Moreover, few executive teams or leadership experts are writing about the coronavirus as one giant topic. They’re fitting it to their expertise.

Some are addressing their business challenges or personal experiences. Others are discussing workplace challenges from a manager’s perspective or from HR’s perspective. Some are talking about internal and external communication. Some are writing strategy guides.

None of these people is an epidemiologist, yet that hasn’t stopped them from writing about what they know and trying to help people with the best possible information during a tense time.

I suppose there are some niches where George Floyd, protests, police brutality, racial inequality, the proper role of authority figures and similar topics have no bearing. But every week for the past 10 years I’ve read countless columns that are like Mad Libs, taking the same talking points or themes from their latest book and swapping out some of the nouns to match current events: Here’s one such formula:

“Why [event/person] shows the power of [topic I charge to speak about]

So, don’t tell me no one has a clue what to write about. Are you going to let NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell‘s vague, platitude-filled statement say more than you? Are you quieter than Nike’s advertising agency, for goodness sake?

More productively, look at Hyatt’s video to see you don’t need to save the world in one piece of content. Like any great venture, idea or movement, you simply need to start somewhere.

But what do I write about?

Here are some sample topics for leadership experts to show they understand what is gripping the country right now — even within a niche and even if you’re scared of sharing a political or social opinion. Again, this is just a sampling:

  • Why crisis communications matters, whether in a communications/PR department or for a front-line leader
  • How do you keep employees safe and help them feel safe when civil unrest is part of their daily lives? This safety can be emotional and physical, and can also include facility security, depending on the context.
  • How do you keep physical locations safe? What should be reviewed, and what responses should employees be coached to select? Should you close customer-facing locations out of a sense of caution, and how should organizations decide that?
  • What can we learn — or shouldn’t learn — from the initial Minneapolis response to Floyd’s death? (Note: there are many angles to take here. Pick one)
  • What should the public protests teach us about the value of employee and customer complaints, and what happens when constituencies feel ignored or abused?
  • Reflections on how to talk to employees about protests. How can we make everyone feel seen and heard? What role does social media play?
  • How do you allow people to sort through these tensions at work while ensuring safety and respect? 
  • What role does empathy play right now? What about accountability? How do you model them at your organization?
  • Conflict resolution — tips and examples of what it looks like (and doesn’t look like).
  • Have you consulted for or coached civil rights groups or other advocates? What about law enforcement? Government? Do those experiences, or similar ones, give you insight you can share?
  • How do organizations help employees cope with mental health? A recurring, relevant topic that’s HR-focused and that we’re all familiar with because of the pandemic.
  • How can we take a more meaningful look at diversity and inclusion in the workplace?
  • Should your brand take a public stand? What should that look like? Is saying/doing nothing better if you can’t figure out a response? Who’s running this brand messaging? 
  • How should companies respond to the Black Lives Matter movement or stand in solidarity with the black community, even if they are not based in the United States?
  • What messaging are you using if customers are affected? Not brand messaging, but guidance for actual human interaction.
  • What’s your internal messaging, even if you choose to stay quiet publicly? 
  • What should the C-suite and/or boards be doing to consider the business risk from this unrest? Does this examination extend to areas such as insurance or political donations?

You’ll need to tread carefully on any of those topics. You’ll need empathy and evidence, you’ll need to show you aren’t being self-serving or making vacuous analogies. It’s hard work. But writing a cogent piece that aims to help people in their lives, with their reports and with their organizations is a cause worthy of this effort.

And, keep in mind, you don’t have to hew to one opinion, viewpoint, or the same prescriptions for entrenched problems. I’m serious about that — I’m not endorsing all opinions, but I am endorsing critical thinking and unique perspectives. What’s happening right now is a leadership topic that is open for inspection, and you shouldn’t pretend it’s not.

Maybe you still feel can’t say anything worthwhile. But don’t forget that your personal experience matters, whether it’s a health crisis like Hyatt’s or Mike Figliuolo’s, or Jennifer V. Miller writing about coping with death at work (or me writing about a departed co-worker), just to name a few examples.

Give these difficult topics a chance before you move on with part six of your series on time management, or your investigation into Warren Buffett’s shareholder letter gems from 2008, or why Tom Brady’s move to the Buccaneers shows sales reps how to close the deal. Those topics will always be there.

For the rest of us who aren’t writing about this or any other topic: Read or listen, take a breath, read or listen some more. Find out what you can to improve your little world and help others. The specifics get harder from there, and you’ll screw it up a lot, but that’s what a lifetime is for: to get better.

Try to do that every day, not just during this time or because of today’s unrest or pandemic. The Bill Gates quote “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten,” has become a cliche, but it’s a powerful one. And, God willing, we have many, many years to put that cliche into practice. Let’s get started.


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content. Contact him at @James_daSilva or by email.

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