Leadership Lessons from the American Civil Rights Movement

Applications to Your Leadership

The previous article outlined the story of the Freedom Riders, a chapter in the American Civil Rights movement.

The Freedom Riders triumphed over stronger opponents as a result of their clarity of purpose, shared values and vision, deep commitment to their goal and to one another, exhaustive training and preparation and unshakable personal courage. Leaders in today’s organizations very rarely find themselves in positions of such extreme overt opposition, physical danger or emotional distress as those encountered by the Freedom Riders. Yet there are everyday lessons to be learned in how to lead in a moral and ethical way.

Take a stand through small acts of solidarity. Organizational environments can be harsh, and our leaders are not always as emotionally intelligent as we might wish. Sometimes people fall between the organizational gears through no intention or fault of their own.

Early in my career, I fell foul of such a leader. I held the naïve belief that as long as I did my job well, I was safe. As it became clear that I was being singled out as a scapegoat and example to others, I was hurt but not surprised that many people began to avoid me. The surprise was that others didn’t. Although I previously had little contact with some of them, these individuals made it a point to invite me for coffee or to stop by my office to chat — something that would not escape notice. As minor as these gestures were, it was revealing that some people chose the politically safe and self-serving option, while others followed their values and acted in ways that held small but perceptible risk for their own careers.

Say something whenever you see someone treated badly. Factors such as upbringing, personality, experience, gender, race and social class make some of us members of powerful in-groups with no effort or intent on our part. Behaviours and comments by in-group members may embarrass or humiliate others — sometimes intentionally to reinforce their power position, more often from lack of awareness of the impact on others. By simply raising the issue (“If I were X, I think that comment would make me very uncomfortable. What do others think?”), you can encourage those who might otherwise remain silent to join the conversation.

Speak up when you sense an important ethical, environmental or social issue is at stake. Such issues are by nature ambiguous and uncomfortable, and raising them can create the impression of being negative and feeling superior. Yet failing to address such issues can have far more significant consequences in the long term.

How many corporate scandals have we seen in recent years where key players acknowledged in hindsight a growing sense of unease yet chose to keep silent? It’s not a matter of knowing the answer but simply of inviting a difficult but important conversation. Having the courage to express concern and to invite others to contribute their perspectives can lead to a more frank and open discussion of uncomfortable topics.

Draw on the power of purpose and commitment. Clarity about your purpose as a leader — about how your leadership adds meaning to your life and to the lives of others — enhances ethical and moral clarity. A strong sense of shared purpose provides the strongest basis for trust and commitment.

Take some time to reflect on these questions:

Leverage the power of teams and organizations committed to a purpose and to each other. A purpose provides meaning, while a goal is a practical tool for achieving results. Most teams have goals, yet far fewer have a sense of shared purpose. A leader who can help a team or organization identify a purpose which resonates with individual members’ values helps to build a deep commitment toward their goals and toward one another.

Moral leadership in one area of life spills over into other areas. When we behave in ethical ways in any part of our life, we strengthen our sense of what we stand for and reinforce our sense of our own personal power. Whether we succeed or fail in our undertaking is less important than the choice to speak up rather than remain passive. While our individual impact may be small, it can be multiplied many times over when our actions create a path for others to follow.

Most of us are not born into the times and situations which compel us to confront challenges like those faced by the Freedom Riders and which enable some individuals to achieve greatness while most around them remain ordinary. Yet, on a less grand scale, we all face challenges and opportunities to nurture the best of who we are — as well as the choice to follow the easier path and hope that someone else will address the uncomfortable issues which are part of organizational life. These issues may not be of earth-shaking magnitude. However, if we choose not to confront them, we unwittingly amplify their impact — and make ourselves smaller in the process.

It…seems probable that the most creative thinking occurs at the meeting places of disciplines. At the center of any tradition, it is easy to become blind to alternatives. At the edges, where lines are blurred, it is easier to imagine that the world might be different. Vision sometimes arises from confusion.
Mary Catherine Bateson
Composing a Life