Small acts of leadership

Small acts of leadership

The latest painful chapter of the Lawrence episode opens up many difficult questions which will take us a good deal of time and patience to understand and work through in our institutions. Justice must be fought for with courage and determination and on the public stage. To my mind, we must also be careful about what happens to human rights in the small and intimate places where we socialize and work every day.

If justice does indeed live in small places, then the everyday transactions between people matter hugely. We already know a little about how unconscious implicit assumptions about race and cultural difference can have a powerful impact on how we see the world and how we communicate. We are shaped and influenced in profound and often unconscious ways to associate those people whom history determines to be ‘other’ as threatening or lesser. In his book ‘Blink’, Malcolm Gladwell, who is himself of mixed heritage, describes how disturbed he was to learn from participating in a social psychological test, that he unconsciously linked the images of black men with many negative associations. Yet, whilst this left him feeling greatly ashamed, he became convinced that although it was not within his gift to overturn these deeply ingrained stereotypic assumptions, it was his duty to be aware of them and to make explicit conscious choices. Everyday we have the opportunity to make these kinds of choices about how we behave and how we communicate with those whom we have been conditioned to regard as threatening or inferior.

Mary Rowe’s work at MIT, provides an extraordinary insight into how micro-inequities, the often small, unnoticed and unintended acts that overlook or convey disrespect to others regarded as different, erode opportunity and shape career trajectories. It is in the mirror opposite of these disempowering communications, that the power to change some of this negative cycle and culture lies. It is in micro-affirmations: in small acts of recognition and remembering, that validate and root us in a positive experience of the social world- in our teams and institutions- and allow us (and those around us) to thrive and fulfill our potential. Living and leading in a global world requires us to navigate a richly diverse and multicultural environment and to hold a dynamic balance between different or clashing cultural perspectives without denying the operation of inequality or the privileges of history and a dominant white culture. Including its sequelae and consequences today: tragedies big and small; known and hidden from view. There is ‘no right way’ or simple answer to navigating well. Yet so often the powerful feelings of guilt, shame and anger that get in the way make it impossible to set sail on the journey and to look afresh and make positive choices that bring human rights alive in small spaces and between people.