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July 7, 2010

Leadership Moments – When Our Actions Tell the Real Untold Story!

What do you do when someone innocently uses the term retard, or refers to something as “that’s gay” and honestly doesn’t understand the ramifications of their actions? What do you do when you are in a conversation with someone who actually believes it is okay to tell a sexist, heterosexist, racist, or classist joke because no one has ever challenged them about it? Once you finally understand the deleterious consequences of unearned privilege not being considered by the individual(s) who has/have it how do we communicate it to others? These are many of the questions that considerate people struggle with everyday in their lives.

My dissertation (which I recently successfully defended) was essentially on what I refer to as “leadership moments.” I researched and ultimately used film to paint a vivid and emotional picture of the leadership moments that we all face and respond to so differently. Then, coincidentally I saw the Seinfeld episode of the Handicap Parking Spot, which I used in my dissertation, as well as in many presentations I do. I recently used that and another similar Seinfeld clip for presentations at Norwich University, Bombardier Corporation, and a NYSNA retreat I co-facilitated. These clips always takes me a few intriguing places. In essence, I wandered into reflecting on how many of us might process these leadership moments so differently. In the scene from the Handicap Parking Spot, Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer are attempting to decide whether to park in a parking spot designated for the physically challenged. George rationalizes that it is only for a moment, Kramer suggests, in a disturbingly philosophical manner, amongst other things the fact that “the handicapped” don’t even want to park there, themselves. Elaine flirts with stopping them, but acquiesces when Kramer confidently reasserts himself. Jerry, for the most part, is silent. The scene is ripe in intriguing opportunities for considering how we choose to engage, or not engage leadership moments.

My concept of leadership moments is situated and predicated within a context of diversity & social justice. It is the moment when someone can step up and challenge problematic prevailing paradigms that exists solely to undermine a person because of a unique dimension of her personality. So, in the case of the Seinfeld episode, the very thought of inconsiderately parking in a parking spot specifically identified as off-limits to you is a leadership moment. It is as blatantly ablest as it is classist and an instance of leveraging unearned privilege. What is provocative about that scene is to challenge people to articulate which of the Seinfeld characters best reflects how they see themselves handling a similar situation. All of us want to see ourselves as the ideal person always making ideal decisions, but honestly, how realistic is that. So, are we George, inconsiderately doing whatever he feels is appropriate without considering not only consequences, but why he would even think it is okay for him to do it? Are we Kramer, running with sound bites (stereotypes) to fuel or legitimate his desire to do what he wants, let the chips fall where they may? Are we Elaine, prepared to challenge dysfunction, but only to the extent it doesn’t require major work? Or are we Jerry, not sure what to do and silently waiting for a compelling argument for motivation to act?

Other instances of leadership moments that are or aren’t accessed can be found anywhere. In the film Mona Lisa Smile, Julia Roberts’ character is both a visionary and transformative leader who challenges the young women she is hired to teach to not succumb to outdated notions associated with their identity as women. Throughout the film, Julia Roberts’ character and others are faced with leadership moments that they either step fully into, or sidestep, for an array of reasons. What are some of the reasons you are familiar with that people use as leverage so as to not change their ways?

As a parent I encounter leadership moments constantly. Whether to allow my son to fit the description of “boys will be boys” when he disrespects his sister or a friend is always under consideration. Whether to act as if it is okay for me to not practice what I preach simply because I am the adult is always an odd moment to be in. Whether to act as if I am not role modeling behavior--when I interact with others in hypocritical ways behavior other than what I expect from my children--is the height of absurdity. What are some of the leadership moments you recall your parents taking advantage of, or missing out on, from your childhood?

I recently did some work with an organization that was comprised of many leaders who appeared to be prepared to lead, but didn’t seem to be prepared to lead outside of the context of a fixed result that they were expected to achieve. Sometimes leadership is finding the way to have a difficult conversation that you really don’t want to have, or can’t imagine having. Sometimes, like the racial incident that occurred within the Saranac Lake School District in late May, leadership moments avail themselves to many constituencies that arguably are all linked in potentially changing the game, but aren’t communicating that fact. At the Saranac Lake school, or any educational institution for that matter, the fact that underrepresented students are suffering because of the differences in their identities is a failed leadership moment for teachers, principals, and yes, superintendents of any school district that has instances of this occurring with nothing “real” in place to combat it. Seriously, you aren’t fooling anyone who is seriously discerning how sophisticated a leader you actually are. It wasn’t an accident that Obama won and Hillary was in the hunt for the presidency. Times, they are a changing and those of us that aren’t changing with them are flirting with becoming dinosaurs. Yes, a Saranac Lake type incident of racist activities towards someone grossly in the minority could happen anyway, but probably would far less if adequate structures were put in place. The fact that law enforcement investigative units and community organizations aren’t responding to a member of the community being ostracized, vilified, and demonized makes a statement about the entire community, whether people want to own that fact or not. It also makes a statement about the hypocrisy of every individual who could make a difference, and doesn’t, but would be ready to tar and feather someone for their bias towards someone connected to the hypocrite. And it is hard to argue that knowingly and willingly succumbing to your own hypocrisy isn’t the epitome of stupid acts. I know. I may be a diversity director, but I’ve done my share. Nonetheless, as a Black man, a member of an underrepresented group, and as a North Country resident who wants to believe that many of us are committed to changing the game I am outraged by what transpired within the Saranac Lake school district . It only takes an incident like this to reinforce to me that everyone is not in the game.

We see leadership moments in film and so-called real life all the time. The Black lieutenant in the film Crash who doesn’t want to deal with the racism of one of his White cops because of its threat to his pension is immersed in a leadership moment. The father of Charlene Theron’s character in the film North Country faces a leadership moment when he attempts to come to her rescue when she is undertaking a leadership moment herself as she speaks to the union membership. In his moment he reveals his failures at previous leadership opportunities even while he is attempting to be successful in one.

I’m curious as to what are some of the leadership moments you have experienced that challenged you to become a change agent, or that made you shy, introspective, or perhaps reflect upon your cowardice? What are some of the leadership moments in film that really got your attention, or unfortunately in real life that you may have witnessed?