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Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership · Gerard Seijs, Kimberley Young Milani

Building a Just and Equitable Future: A Character Perspective

Jun 22, 2020


The past four weeks have shown us remarkable images from around the world. In the United States, people – young and old, black and white – filled the streets on a scale not seen since the 1960s to protest against racial injustice after the death of George Floyd. Likewise, there were marches and gatherings in many Canadian cities to highlight that racism and violence in policing aren’t just American problems. Black Lives Matter may, and hopefully will, become an era-defining movement.

NAACP President Derrick Johnson defined systemic racism as “systems and structures that have procedures or processes that disadvantage African Americans.” In light of this understanding, many organizations in the public, private and not for profit sectors are undertaking a deeper examination of the inequalities embedded within their own systems (such as recruitment and selection, pay and promotion, etc.) while also scrutinizing how those structures foster and perpetuate toxic workplace cultures. Some organizations have committed to investing millions of dollars towards furthering racial equity, championing racial justice, and contributing to the eradication of systemic racism within their organization and society-at-large. 

While such a focus is important, the crux of this blog is not to emphasize the need for the recalibration of organizational systems but rather the need for rectitude in organizational culture. In short, the people make the place; meaning that an organization’s culture doesn’t exist as something separate or distinct from the people who work there. Many years ago, professor Benjamin Schneider articulated that “the attributes of people ... are the fundamental determinants of organizational behaviour.” People build systems and structures; and they craft the culture of an organization – for good or bad. Hence, if we really want to address systemic racism in organizations then we must first attend to the people.

But where and how to start? Dede Henley, a leadership development consultant and contributing author to Forbes, raised a host of interesting questions. What does leadership look like now that the Black Lives Matter movement has finally come to the forefront of our conversations and consciousness? What you are learning and what is becoming clearer to you? What can you do to make a tangible difference? We’d like to approach these questions from a character perspective.

We consider leadership to be a function of competencies, character and commitment. Competencies reflect what a person can do. Commitment describes the degree of effort that someone will put in, based on things like their level of aspiration, their degree of engagement, and the extent to which they are willing sacrifice to reach a goal. While character is a component of leadership in its own right, it also underpins competencies and commitment: character determines whether a person will obtain the requisite competencies and make the commitment required. Character reflects who people are and influences every choice people make about what to do in any given situation. Understood as a combination of virtues and particular values and personality traits, character can be developed and is tied to personal growth, both as an individual and as a leader. 

Years of research by Mary Crossan, Jeffrey Gandz, Lucas Monzani, Gerard Seijts, and post doctoral research associates has led to the development and validation of the Leader Character Framework.  Character shapes a number of things, including but not limited to, what we notice within the context we are operating; how we interact with the world around us; who we engage in conversation and how we conduct those conversations; what we value; how we interpret feedback; what we choose to act upon; how we deal with conflict, disappointment, and setbacks; our willingness to examine and dismantle our own biases; the goals we set for the organizations we lead; the kind of culture we allow to flourish within our organizations; and so forth. It is easy to envision how these dimensions and their supporting behaviours can contribute to reimagining and building a more just and equitable future – for black people, indigenous people, and people of colour – as well as contributing to individual and collective learning and development. Here are some examples of the dimensions in action using brief illustrations.

Justice: When a person is committed to being just, they strive to ensure that individuals are treated fairly, while remaining objective and keeping personal biases to a minimum when making decisions. They provide others with the opportunity to voice their opinions on processes and procedures and seek to redress wrongdoings inside and outside the organization. Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA, has shown a commitment to using the power of sport to effect change beyond the basketball arena. For example, just two months into his position he penalized then-Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling with an NBA-maximum $2.5 million fine and a lifetime ban. Sterling was caught on tape making racist comments. Silver is committed to building a diverse and inclusive league for staff, players and fans alike. His ongoing commitment to use the NBA as a platform to fight for social justice is also evident from his support to use the NBA as a global social media platform to help the players get their messages across to the masses if they decide to play in the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Collaboration: People who value collaboration actively support the development and maintenance of positive relationships among people. They encourage open dialogue and do not react defensively when challenged. They are able to connect with others at a fundamental level, in a way that fosters the productive sharing of ideas. For example, Tarana Burke founded the Me Too movement in 2006 while working at Just Be Inc., her non-profit organization that focuses on supporting young women of colour. She coined the phrase “me too” as a statement supporting people who have experienced sexual assault. However, in her presentations, Burke emphasizes that the Me Too movement was a result of persistent community organizing. In her words: “This thing is too big to think that one person can do it, there is no silver bullet. There’s no one person, there’s no one idea, no one mission.”

Courage: People who demonstrate courage do the right thing even though it may be unpopular, actively discouraged, and/or result in a negative outcome for them or the organization they lead. They show an unrelenting determination, confidence, and perseverance in confronting difficult situations – because they know they are on the right side of an issue. Years ago, TD Bank embraced Pride. The then CEO, Ed Clark, recalled that one executive told him the bank was losing customers to rivals because it was so openly supportive of gay issues. But Cark was steadfast in his support – he said, “this is about human rights, this is about being a good corporate citizen, this is about being a good person citizen.”

Humanity: People who engage in behaviours that reflect humanity demonstrate a genuine concern and care for others, and can appreciate and identify with others’ values, feelings, and beliefs. In 2017, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu presided over the removal of three Confederate statues and a white supremacist memorial. His subsequent speech has been labeled as one for the ages because of his sensitive, spirited defense of those actions. For example, in the speech, evoking his personal “journey on race,” Landrieu described a friend who “asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African-American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth-grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it? Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential?”

Humility: People who reveal humility acknowledge their limitations, understand the importance of thoughtfully examining one’s own opinions and ideas, and embrace opportunities for personal growth and development. They are intensely self-aware, and they do not consider themselves to be more important or special than others. Humble individuals respect, understand and appreciate others’ strengths and contributions. This is essential to being able see your prejudices when they are brought to light, acknowledging your privilege, and recognizing how you may have contributed to systemic racism and racial injustice. It is easy to fall victim to subtle and not so subtle biases. A few months ago, one of the authors used a powerpoint slide in one of his executive education classes on learning to become a leader that had two pictures next to each other: Frodo Baggins and Luke Skywalker. At the end of the class, someone asked him why two white men; why not replace Frodo or Luke with a strong female, black leader, such as Okoye, general of the Dora Milaje? Needless to say - he was very embarrassed. How could he not have seen the message he was sending with the image? He did not leave the classroom before updating his presentation.

Accountability: People who demonstrate accountability accept responsibility for their decisions and actions, and step up and take ownership of challenging issues. Stratford Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino and executive director Anita Gaffney released a statement on June 1 that said: “As a company we have upheld white supremacy in the past … It must be dismantled. We are committed to using this time to evolve our understanding of equity, inclusion and anti-racism and to prepare to celebrate and give platform to a more diverse array of voices when we return.”

Temperance: People who mastered temperance conduct themselves in a calm, composed manner. They maintain the ability to think clearly and respond reasonably in tense situations. American author and rabbi Chaim Potok once said, “Bend from the lofty perch of your own disciplines and listen with regard to disciplines not your own.  If you are an engineer, listen to the artist; if you are a physicist, listen to the philosopher; if you are a logician, listen to the religionist; and especially if you are in a position of power, listen, listen. We need to listen to one another if we are to make it through this age of permanent apocalypse and avoid the chaos of the crowd.” Listening to each other can be extraordinary difficult during times of crises and intense frustration. However, it is in these moments when listening is the most critical; it creates the opportunity for others to feel heard, for new learning to occur, and collaborative solutions to be found.

The groundswell of global activism focused on racial justice that has happened in the four weeks since the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, is galvanizing the movement for racial equity in societies worldwide. The lessons, the learning and also the unlearning that has occurred demand and deserve our sustained attention and action. Our hope is that people pause and reflect on what this moment in time is revealing to us as individuals and within our nations - for both are necessary to develop self and collective awareness and understanding, and to ensure progress.

The Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership aspires to have a deep impact on individuals, organizations and societies through the creation and application of new knowledge on leader character.  Among other things, we aim to develop global citizens who have strength of character, strive to make a difference, and contribute to the flourishing of teams, organizations, communities, and societies.

Examining and addressing issues around systemic racism, social justice, inclusion, and the role of leadership squarely fall within the mandate of the Institute. In the coming weeks and months, we will continue to reflect; to learn and unlearn; to examine our privilege; to listen to the voices of those who, for too long, have gone unheard and unheeded – so we can take action now and in the future and be a constructive voice in making the world a better place.  As advised by the great African-American poet, Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better.  Then when you know better, do better.”  We are and we will.  We invite you to join us.