Ann Skeet is the senior director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are her own.
Understandably, many Americans are experiencing June 2020 as a time of despair and deep concern for our democracy, our local communities, and the prospects of socioeconomic and racial equality. As the month started, the spotlight turned away from the ravages of a biological disease and turned to the ravages of the nation’s longest, most virulent social disease, racism. The grief is palpable, and moving, quite literally, thousands of white Americans to do something they have not done before—join in solidarity with Black and brown Americans asking for more than just rhetoric. Is that enough? No. Is it an important first step?
I hope so.
The death of George Floyd, quickly on the heels of two other high profile, senseless deaths of African Americans, and in the context of the suffering the pandemic revealed in Black and brown communities appears to have finally broken through our collective consciousness and consciences, stirring Americans to understand something basic about the design of democracy. It depends, no actually it demands, that, in our country, every person leads. Democracy’s design relies on people in local communities to serve in elected office, to vote, to volunteer, to help their neighbor, distributing leadership broadly. We lead by treating each other equally and with the dignity any human deserves.
Democracy defines leadership as engagement and solidarity. In times of crisis, most often natural disasters, we see how well the design works as we become aware of the crisis and who it is affecting, understand what we can do to help, and act to do so. But our responses in a string of travesties have been uneven. 9-11. Katrina. The Great Recession. Oscar Grant. Philando Castile. Trayvon Martin. Paradise, CA. Covid-19. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. George Floyd.
We stand together and rally better when the tragedy impacts us without prejudice. When it does not, we stumble. It is harder to experience solidarity when the pain is not equal.
The recovery from the 2008 recession was long, messy, and incomplete, because it lacked solidarity and did not deliver justice. Its impact was unequal, and systemic inequities have persisted from it, unaddressed. This inadequate response left us all vulnerable, though not all equally so.
Capitalism requires trust, as eloquently laid out in a 2018 essay in the Financial Times by British Conservative MP Jesse Norman, explaining how Adam Smith would reform capitalism if he were alive today. Norman wrote, “For Smith, the crucial linking idea is that of the continuous exchange that occurs in all human interaction. This may be the exchange of goods and services in markets. But it can also be the exchange of meanings in language and in other forms of communication. And, it can be the exchange of regard or esteem that in Smith’s view underlies the formation of moral and social norms in society.”1
Continuous exchange. “The exchange of regard or esteem that underlies the formation of moral and social norms in society.”
In the words of Santa Clara University’s president, Father Kevin O’Brien, inviting us to create a campus that is a place of generous encounter. “…A generous encounter,” he told us in his inaugural address, “….means that we presume the good will of another, encourage one another, and correct another both in truth and in love.” With truth and love, it is time for correction.
In the context of a global pandemic, we are able to see some inequalities and prejudices more clearly. And we are starting to understand that we are all affected by them, even though we suffer unequally. Leadership from all of us can move us forward now when traditional leadership is failing us. Democracy was designed to be a full participation sport.
We are seeing our country’s distributed leadership come to life. At least three common elements of this leadership are emerging in response to George Floyd’s murder, and the many murders of those who preceded him. From corporate leaders, civil society leaders, community organizers, people are acknowledging, learning, beginning to act. Though Colin Kaepernick’s bended knee statement was positioned by some at the time as a slight to those in military service, there is far more cohesion between Kaepernick’s position and that of military leadership now. The emerging common trust-building elements look like this:
Solidarity: Simple and grand actions of unity and allyship are happening all over our country and indeed, the world. People are literally standing together. White people are joining Black and brown people, already experiencing outsized risk due to COVID, to protest, in many cases peacefully and close to home. Colleagues are speaking out in their professional settings boldly, with strong statements, and simply, with email chains of written word support.
Understanding through education: Leadership includes helping others make sense of things. Many leaders are pointing to similar sources of understanding for people who are genuinely interested in learning about racism and to be an antiracist. Almost every kind of commentary from tweets, to posts, to official statements includes a recommended reading list of resources to help us all understand the causes, the experiences, and begin working on the solutions to systemic racism. We add to these resources on the Markkula Center website, including a series held in 2017, the Workplace Diversity Dialogues, exploring systemic change in professional settings.
Action: Everyone who is acting now is leading. Everyone who is helping others to act is leading. Motivating people to do something, and typically something new and different, is an invitation that leaders offer to other people. Some of the most powerful invitations being extended are those reaching out to touch people where they can experience them in everyday life. Picking up that ice cream at the grocery store and learning something from Ben and Jerry about dismantling white supremacy. Law enforcement officers, laying down their weapons and choosing to listen to and march protestors. A corporate director choosing to step down from the board of a company he founded to make room for the appointment of a Black director. Each of choosing where to get our information, where to worship, who to help, how to work together.
The linking idea is there in Adam Smith’s continuous exchange, in a saint’s invitation to see the good in people, in Martin Luther King encouraging us to understand that “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” Younger generations are demanding that we do something to save our planet, to challenge calcified institutions, let go of privileges that serve as a chokehold on justice.
1 Jesse Norman. “How Adam Smith would fix capitalism.” The Financial Times, June 21, 2018.