Archive for August, 2010

Ostrich Leadership

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

I never cease to be amazed by how many skilled leaders remain silent at critical moments when even the casual observer can see that the situation calls for the leader to speak out. I call this the “ostrich” dilemma paying homage to the pervasive (though false) notion that, in response to danger, these flightless avians bury their heads in the sand. Leaders come to believe that if they do not respond in the midst of a leadership moment then they will somehow be less responsible for what unfolds in response to their silence. I have no idea what was in the minds of Feisal Abdul Rauf or President Obama as they seemingly hesitated to respond to the mosque situation; I’m not sure any distant observer really does. But I do know from my work with hundreds of leaders that while leadership silence is sometimes a strategic move to help empower constituents to act with autonomy, it is far too often the product of indecision, anxiety, and fear.

This is not rocket science. As human beings, crisis and danger can lead to fight or flight responses. Freezing up and not knowing what to do is a manifestation of flight. But part of a skilled leader’s toolkit is the ability to override that response because their constituents, their organizations, and their societies need them to. People need the model of an alternative to paralysis. And most leaders, being that they are humans, have to work to develop that skill. The problem is that too many do not. Or if they have the skill they misapply it.

Let me pause before this ends up sounding too much like an ivory-tower-egghead critique by someone who has never been under fire. Actually, that would be kind of accurate. My leadership experiences don’t compare in scope to those of a head of state or of a leader of a religious or social movement. But even in my experiences of crises in my professional and civic leadership, I have behaved like a proverbial ostrich on more than one occasion. I have found myself stymied by the complexity and anxiety of pressure leadership moments. I didn’t know what to do. I worried that any move, one way or the other, would have negative consequences for the situation and for the people who were counting on me. And I really didn’t want to look bad in front of my constituents because I made the wrong choice; I didn’t want to look incompetent.

I’ve learned from many powerful leaders and from my own experience that leadership is knowing that there is never a fence to sit on. Leaders I’ve worked with strategically employ a “wait and see” tactic in response to a range of demands on them from crises to simple requests, but they often fail to realize that just because they have chosen silence, that doesn’t mean the situation pauses. Followers don’t tolerate leadership vacuums. If a leader is silent, his or her followers make up stories about why that leader is not responding, stories full of drama and intrigue that often blame the leader and fail to help the situation. Leaders have to be cognizant of this and mindful to obliterate ambiguity with voice and action, especially in the midst of crisis and fear.

Leaders never have time off. Even when a leader takes a vacation, his or her persona as a leader remains present in the minds and hearts of followers. Just ask Tony Hayward.

Darden Executive Education’s “Women Emerging in Leadership”

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

Dr. Davidson will co-teach this new Executive Education program with colleague and program producer, Erika Hayes James, PhD dedicated to helping you and your organization excel by developing you into a highly effective, visionary leader. The program is designed for high-potential female executives with 5–10 years experience, and line- and people-management responsibilities. For more information, contact

Living Diversity

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

In my capacity as Associate Dean and Chief Diversity Officer for the Darden School, I wanted to  welcome the students, faculty, and staff as they prepared to begin the Fall 2010 term last week. When I talk with leaders in business, government, and social profit organizations, nearly everyone is searching for a compelling message that communicates the importance of everyone’s participation in an inclusive environment in which to learn and work.

I was looking for the same thing.  Walking through the halls of Darden—the Classroom Building, The Abbott Center, the Faculty Office Building, Student Services, or Sponsor’s Hall, it was apparent to me that we constituted an extraordinarily diverse community in both overt and subtle ways.  I anticipated the myriad conversations that would unfold in those hallways in the coming months and I knew from experience that many would be positive, but many would be full of emotion and conflict.

What could I write that would help when people were most confused and emotional about diversity?  I came up with this:

“As you continue to broaden your perspectives on difference and diversity, it may help to understand and reflect on why diversity matters to our institution and to our community:

1.      Diversity has the potential to elevate performance, both individually and collectively. In an increasingly global and diverse world, being a proverbial diversity ostrich is just a bad idea.  Being professionally and personally successful in the coming years requires that you have a clear understanding of and comfort with people who are different from you.  Contrary to popular belief and rhetoric, diversity is not always good.  Sometimes it leads to dysfunction.  But when it is engaged and managed well, difference provides unparalleled benefits in performance, innovation, and satisfaction with the relationships in your life.

2.      Diversity challenges us to examine our values. Being happy and harmonious together with our differences is a nice place to be, but in fact in most situations, the harmony is a bit of an illusion.  Real harmony emerges in a diverse community only after the members of that community have challenged one another, listened to one another, felt reactive and frustrated with one another, and experienced empathy and understanding with one another, even when our positions are irreconcilable.  Difference is important because it makes us pay attention to assumptions we have likely not questioned:  “I am rarely if ever biased,” “Some people are always biased,” “Differences don’t matter that much,” “People don’t understand enough how differences matter.” By examining our values and assumptions about each other and about ourselves, we make ourselves more skillful and competent professionals and more enlightened individuals.

3.      Diversity provides the context for learning inside and outside of our classrooms or offices. The way we effectively enhance our performance and challenge our values is through learning.  Incorporating those lessons into practice is what creates sustainable change for us as individuals and for your workplace or community; and in participating in that change we allow our living and working environments to thrive.  Our ability to promote a place of learning in the face of difference is what will create sustained value.”

My hope is this message can help inspire more open thinking and dialogue.  One thing is clear to me, though.   How well we negotiate our differences as a community will shape the tone of our daily experiences with one another, and ultimately, our ability to thrive as an institution.

Diversity and White Privilege

Friday, August 6th, 2010

I had a chance to read Jim Webb’s piece in the Wall Street Journal on diversity and white privilege. He makes a careful and compelling argument that poor white people are significantly disadvantaged (on a par with black folks) and then asserts that the solution to this dilemma is to stop all government affirmative action and diversity initiatives that help people who need the help…except for helping black people. (And BTW, Senator, “the injustices endured by black Americans at the hands of their own government have no parallel in our history?!?” Have you forgotten the experience of indigenous people in this country?)

Senator Webb tries to make an important point about the plight of poor white Americans, but he and his detractors (and even many of his supporters) miss the most important point:  High quality, well designed diversity activity is an attempt to level the playing field.  This activity should be expanded to include class diversity, no matter the color of the person, NOT eliminated.  Insisting on diminishing institutional attention to diversity ignores the reality that lots of folks benefit from unearned privilege in this society—whites, men, heterosexuals, and yes, many affluent people who simply inherited the wealth generated by the work of others.  This is an affront to meritocracy, and high quality diversity programs can help to rectify this.  Senator Webb started down an important path, but got woefully lost along the way.  Only black people should be recipients of diversity programs?  Really?

My biggest impression, though, is that this was also very much a commentary on immigration and a clear message to “independent” voters that he does not support government programs and policies that favor immigrants, legal or illegal. As always, politics are evident. I took a few minutes to screen some of the reactions to the WSJ piece. People—mostly conservative respondents, it seemed—really slammed Webb for being disingenuous and pandering to moderates. Whatever his intentions, it will be interesting to see what happens to him in Virginia between now and his next election in 2012.

Leveraging Your Own Difference

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

I’ve been thinking about what our President, who is different from the norm, needs to do to be effective. Paradoxically, Obama is failing to put the racial dialogue into the background of his administration because he has failed to articulate his blackness more explicitly. The tactic of staying undercover about one’s identity, while intuitively sensible and conservative, rarely works well for trailblazer leaders. Obama is black (I know he’s biracial, but we don’t worry about “biracial” conflict, we worry about racial conflict), identifies with his blackness and everyone looking at him knows it. Remaining silent about his identity frustrates his supporters, fuels resistance from his opponents when the issue does arise, and generally confuses those who are trying to decide how they feel about him. Instead, the President should leverage his unique identity by freeing himself to talk about it, and not just when a racial “crisis” arises but as a regular habit of public communication. Normalizing his blackness will solidify this President’s supporters, neutralize some of his resistors, and persuade folks in the middle to join him as the country did in the election. And it will make him a more effective leader.