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How J.E.D.I. Leaders Take a Stand

We are entering a new age of corporate leadership, where social justice and inequity are becoming key components of successful modern leadership. Leaders (and organizations) who do not move swiftly and strategically, risk not only alienating employees but also potential clients and customers.

Over the past two weeks there have been three watershed events that have impacted the body politic here in the US - the Kyle Rittenhouse murder verdict, the Ahmaud Arbery murder verdict, and the undermining of Roe Vs. Wade by the US Supreme Court due to potentially upholding a Mississippi law that violates one of the essential holdings of the famous abortion statute established nearly 50 years ago. In this politically charged environment, a question that leaders are wrestling with is what, if anything, should they do or say related to potentially controversial events. The answer, as always lies less in their comfort level addressing issues that impact their most crucial stakeholders - employees and customers, and more with living up to the standards of J.E.D.I. leaders - or those who uphold the principles of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in how they lead their teams, divisions, functions, and/or enterprises.

To recap - Kyle Rittenhouse crossed state lines with an illegally obtained AR-15 assault rifle and ended up killing two people and injuring a third during protests in Kenosha, WI related to the police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed African-American man in August 2020. On November 19, a predominantly white jury (19 of 20 jurors) acquitted Rittenhouse on all charges, including first-degree intentional and first-degree reckless homicide. He argued he acted in self-defense and the jury sided with his defense. The issue at heart here is the continued evidence of an unfair legal system that if the tables were turned and an African-American youth had committed the exact same act of crossing state lines, inserting themself into a volatile situation and then murdered two other African-Americans and been arrested - would be in prison today, not taking photo ops with Donald Trump.

Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old African-American man, was taking a jog, when Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael (both white) grabbed their guns and pursued him - believing he might be responsible for a rash of burglaries in their suburban enclave (or so they claimed). In the ensuing confrontation Arbery was shot and killed. They claimed to be conducting a citizen's arrest of the unarmed African-American man until video, shot by a third white man, William "Roddie" Bryan who joined the pursuit and recorded the shooting on his cellphone, emerged ten weeks later, igniting calls for arrests and investigations of the tragedy. In this instance, a predominantly white jury (11 of 12 jurors) convicted all three men on 23 of 27 counts. If there were ever a lighting rod case for Black Lives Matter-ing - it is this one, where three white "vigilantes" took it upon themselves to play judge, jury, and executioner to a young African-American because he had the gall to run outside in a predominantly white neighborhood.

And on December 2, The US Supreme Court deliberated on a Mississippi law that prohibits most abortions after 15 weeks. The national law is that states may not prohibit abortion before the point of fetal viability, which is generally estimated to be between 22 and 24 weeks of pregnancy. A ruling in favor of this Mississippi term limit would throw abortion regulations into chaos across the US and fully undermine the landmark legislation based on the Roe vs. Wade verdict. Women in these states would face a similar situation to those living in Texas whom now have to contend with anti-abortion legislation that Justice Sonia Sotomayor said was a “flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights and evade judicial scrutiny.”

At the center of these three events are questions of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion:

  • When is it just to murder, when you brought the gun to the party for instance?

  • In which states and instances should a woman have full dominion over her body and her choices?

  • How is it diverse to try cases in which the racial implications are obvious, with majority white juries?

  • How can traditionally disenfranchised employees feel psychologically safe and fully included in companies that remain silent on issues that matter?

With that in mind, here are four ways J.E.D.I. leaders keep themselves aligned with the continual efforts to eradicate injustices, eliminate inequities, expand diversity, and enhance inclusion in their companies, communities, and societies:

  • Demonstrate empathy: The first step is to listen, understand, and validate the experiences, feelings, and emotions of the aggrieved parties. In these instances, it is African-Americans and women (regardless of their stance on abortion). Really lean in and make space to take in these perspectives and make these constituencies feel heard and seen.

  • Take a stand: Regardless of a leader's personal politics related to these verdicts and potential judgements, if you are responsible for a diverse group of people, they are expecting their leaders to stand up for the causes of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion especially when it is uncomfortable to do so. Fence-sitting and silence will not be forgotten by employees and customers.

  • Double down: This is a fantastic moment to reiterate the company's investments in enhancing internal and external fights for greater social justice with specific recent examples of actions and progress. Demonstrate how the company is on the side of solutions and not inaction.

  • Take a cue from your ERGs: Consult the leadership within Employee Resource Groups before firing off a response and align the communication plan. And more than this, let the ERG's lead the corporate response both internally and externally to avoid carelessness and callousness in these crucial messages.

Responses that contemplate these four elements will not only land well with a majority of employees and customers, they will also reinforce the leader's and companies why or true north of leveraging their platform to not only deliver great products and services but make the world a better place at the same time!

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