A week ago, there was an auspicious alignment of two of the most influential black Americans: Barack Obama was inaugurated for a second time (if electing a black President was historic, how should we describe his re-election?) on Martin Luther King Day, a public holiday in the USA.
These two men have done more, at least in the public eye, to drive forward the equality agenda in the US then any others. Of course, they have had allies and collaborators, antecedents and ancestors, but in terms of leaving a footprint on the society in which they lived and served they have no equals.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
While I could spend time analysing and commenting on the political nature of their struggles I am struck by something more universal that connects both men – an underlying belief in the potential of all: a shared belief that we should all be judged not by who we are but by what we do. And the belief that equality is, fundamentally, a statement of the potential of all of us to succeed in whatever field of endeavour we chose and that we should be free to pursue this success without hindrance from others based on bias or stereotype.
It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce […] ”
United States President Barack Obama, in his second inaugural address, January 21, 2013
The President’s statement resonates for me in a more general sense. As someone who spends his time coaching leaders in organisations, I wonder how many of them share this belief in the potential of all of their people? In this time of economic gloom, how many organisations could accelerate their success if they released all of their people to live up to their full talents?
All too often I come across managers who feel that they have to decide everything, that their people are incapable and lazy “children” who need to be either spoon fed or chastised regularly for not doing better. Managers who make assumptions about people on the basis of their background, education, experience, position in the business…… and yes, still on such matters as race, gender and sexuality. Managers who can’t see beyond the surface to the person underneath and then bring the best out of that person. Managers I might hesitate to call leaders.
This malaise is by no means endemic, with many leaders already demonstrating trust in their people’s ability and potential to succeed, but to paraphrase MLK:
I have a dream that all people will one day work in an organisation where they will not be judged by their ‘skin’, but by the content of their inner potential.”