Loving Those You Lead: Developing Courageous Authenticity & Combating the Dangerous Silence of Apathy for Managers, By Dr. Reginald Wells, Executive in Residence, Key Executive Leadership Programs
Dr. Malone’s May blog post entitled “Don’t Forget the People,” offered an admonishment to those who choose to lead. Our work forces are suffering from stress, fearfulness, and loneliness and Dr. Malone concluded: “that as leaders we will need to work harder to love those we lead, and let them know it.”
I am compelled, in this moment, to double down on Dr. Malone’s admonition by emphasizing the importance of our connectivity with those under our supervision and the role leaders play in validating shared humanity; and I use recent events as a backdrop for my riff.
“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In my opinion, leaders capable of molding the consensus we need today must be emotionally intelligent and of impeccable character. They must demonstrate high levels of integrity and show cultural competence; and they must be capable of empathic concern. I have found that it is hard to foster connection and inspire people to perform purposeful work well when those who lead them lack these essential personal attributes.
The recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks have sparked an emerging Zeitgeist reminiscent of my adolescent years. Unlike the images of the ‘60s, however, it is encouraging to see that the throngs of citizens flooding the streets in protest this time around reflect the rich diversity of America. It is hard to ignore the shocking images of abuse and murder of Black people now available for all to see courtesy of social media. People of conscience who once questioned the veracity of complaints coming from Black America and other communities of color around the globe have witnessed, in real time, what happens when a society remains in denial of its legacy of institutional and individual racism. Thank God they were disgusted and sickened by the images. Their outrage may portend what many of us have been waiting for: a broader coalition of people who are no longer willing to be complicit in preserving systemic racism through their silence and apathy.
Like COVID-19, recognition of the pandemic of systemic racism has touched a collective nerve. That shared experience should have made it easier for leaders to make a visceral connection with employees, allow them to recognize and appreciate the emotional fatigue many are feeling, and take an action to mitigate their stress, fear and feelings of loneliness. Even if a leader’s frame of reference makes it difficult to reach solidarity with protesters or employees who support their cause, it is not unreasonable for employees to expect leadership to appreciate the importance of this moment by acknowledging their concerns. By offering messages of encouragement and reconciliation, and listening for the genuine anguish people are feeling, leaders create a safe space and create an opportunity for connecting with people in a meaningful way.
Some leaders did the right thing and stepped up to the needs of their people with messages of encouragement and condemnation of systemic racism and injustice. Leadership at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, American University, and the Partnership for Public Service are cases in point.
When leadership was slow to respond, it was reported in the media that some employees actually took it upon themselves to speak truth to power in an effort to trigger action, such as the group of Black employees at the Department of Justice, reminding us that leadership can be situational and come from unexpected sources.
Regrettably, some leadership failed to heed the call all together or failed to heed the call in a timely manner. Those leaders failed to acknowledge the “elephant in the room” and, for employees looking to their leadership for reassurance, the silence was deafening. It is causing some to question the ability of their leaders to feel their pain and show the emotional intelligence and courageous authenticity required to lead a diverse and inclusive workforce effectively.
To Dr. Malone’s point, we have a lot of work to do. Not only do some leaders appear to be incapable of loving those they lead, but they appear to show wanton disregard for the feelings and sensibilities of their employees, or perhaps even worse, show intolerably insulting indifference where genuine concern should be shown. The people we lead deserve our love and we need to enhance our ability to show them how much we love and respect them. It all begins with personal reflection (a look in the mirror) and a call for honest feedback from those we lead, especially those courageous individuals who have shown a willingness and ability to be authentically honest with us. Be willing to listen, connect, and allow yourself to feel what they feel. That is one way we can show them the love.
About the Author
Reginald F. Wells was named Deputy Commissioner of the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Office of Human Resources effective July 15, 2002 after serving short tenures as Deputy Associate Commissioner for Disability Program Policy and Senior Advisor in the Office of Disability and Income Security Programs. Dr. Wells also serves as the Chief Human Capital Officer for SSA. In his capacity as Deputy Commissioner for Human Resources, Dr. Wells oversees a staff complement of 400 employees with an operating budget of $100 million. Dr. Wells served as Deputy Commissioner of the Administration on Developmental Disabilities from October 1994 to April 2002. He shared with the Commissioner full responsibility for planning and directing 25 federal staff and programmatic activities, including the University Centers, Developmental Disabilities Councils, Protection and Advocacy Systems and Projects of National Significance with a program budget of over $122 million. From October 1997 to May 1998, Dr. Wells served as the Acting Commissioner of the Administration on Developmental Disabilities in the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families (ACF). Prior to his appointment in the Administration on Developmental Disabilities, Dr. Wells had 10 years of extensive public sector experience with the District of Columbia’s (D.C.) Department of Human Services. In 1980, Dr. Wells received a Ph.D. in Psychology from Temple University in Philadelphia. He also earned his M.A. in psychology from Temple University and B.A. in psychology and sociology from American International College.
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