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Contentious times require courageous leaders

Woman crossing arms

I’ve been consumed by topics that, while not directly tied to leadership, significantly impact the environments within which we lead.

Race and gender. Politics and religion. Anger and fear.

I’ve been asking myself what it all means not only to me personally, but to every leader who desires to create workplace cultures where all employees feel safe, respected and valued.

Today’s social narrative — increasingly punctuated by separatism and frustration — has transformed our multicultural American landscape into a virtual eggshell.

While we’ve always had issues, demographic evolution and cultural blending meant a trend toward increased diversity and the richness and creativity that come along with it. In the majority of Americans’ eyes, this was a good thing.

But these days, it’s hard to know where to step, when, or how lightly. It seems we — and our relationships — are merely a fracture away from completely cracking up.

No easy solutions

I don’t have an easy solution, which is really annoying for someone who earns a living making the complex simple. I only know, as a woman with family, friends and colleagues of all races, religions and genders, that I don’t want to feel this way. As a Black woman, I don’t want to look sideways at non-Black people or feel paranoid about who might be looking sideways at me.

I don’t want to hold my breath every time my sons and my husband leave the safety of our home to go out into a world where some will undoubtedly assume the worst of them.

I’m tired. And you should be, too.

Human beings were made to love and be loved, to create and to evolve. But we are also painfully flawed. Unfortunately, fear magnifies our flaws. It provokes our survival instincts — erecting walls and slamming doors shut.

Robert F. Kennedy once said, “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.”

Leadership during turmoil

Inspirational leaders can’t afford to be silent now. We need change, yes, but we also need to believe we can change for the better. We need people with more loving versions of the story we’re now living to tell their side — loudly and often.

While all leaders expect to play psychologist once in a while, we don’t become corporate leaders anticipating a need to take a stand on social issues. To mitigate racial tension. To facilitate conversations we’ve been taught are not “work appropriate.”

Work and life, fortunately or unfortunately, have been blending for a while now. There are people on your team who feel angry, afraid, exhausted, resentful, annoyed, unsafe — and more. They woke up feeling that way and they walked through your doors feeling that way. These emotions are not conducive to the kind of productivity you need and expect from your people.

A few thoughts for you — for all of us— as we traverse this increasingly rocky terrain.

Speak up. Our silence, while it may seem easier, makes an already uncomfortable situation very lonely for some. We often fill in blanks with unproductive detail. Try not to leave too many blanks.

Create a safe space for open dialogue. Let your team know you’re available to talk. About whatever.

Express your intent — what you hope for your team, expect of them and what you believe. Speak life and set a high bar they can rise to.

Get your team’s input. Ask how you can ensure a safe space for all employees. Use their ideas to shape your culture moving forward. Set boundaries if you need to, but ask the tough questions so you know what you're dealing with.

Realize true inclusion is a journey, not an initiative. As a leader, your actions may change, but your values should not. If your company claims diversity as a value, step up and show others what it looks like to truly value people who are different by honoring their experience, ensuring their emotional safety at work and respecting their voices.

We are the authors of our experience. Let’s change the narrative. Starting now.

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Tara Jaye Frank is founder and CEO of TJF Career Modeling LLC. The former Hallmark executive has served as co-designer of the NEW Executive Leaders Forum and the author of Say Yes: A Woman’s Guide to Advancing Her Professional Purpose

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.