Skip to content

Dear Fellow White Person…

(A white woman’s confession, reflection and course correction)

I’ve often thought of myself as different from all those other white people who are clueless when it comes to racial and cultural differences. I was one of the few white people who “gets it”. Turns out, I was wrong.

That time I had to see it to get it

When I think back, I’m embarrassed and ashamed. I’m working in midtown Manhattan some years ago, and I need to go uptown with my male Black colleague. As we descend in the elevator, he tells me there is no way he will be successful at hailing a cab. I tell him that is just crazy, but he is insistent. I say, “We are on the curb of one of the premier Manhattan addresses and you are in a gorgeous suit. I don’t believe you.”

So, he challenges me to a test. He is going to try to hail a cab first and I need to step away from him. Six, eight available cabs don’t even slow down. Then we reverse positions on the curb. I’m successful immediately. When he enters the cab with me, I can see the driver isn’t pleased but continues to our destination.

I wish I could tell you this happened when I was young and less aware, but I was nearly 50 years old at the time. I wish I could tell you that other Black friends and colleagues hadn’t told me similar stories before this moment. But they had.

That time I used the tired cliché in my defense

Going back in time even further, I was giving a lecture to graduate students at a major university about team dynamics. At the end of my prepared remarks, I took some questions. One Black student asked if it was best to have differences on a team. “Mo’ difference is mo’ better” was my response. Without a hint of embarrassment, I must add. At the break, the white professor pulled me into her office and provided some pointed feedback about how inappropriate my comment was and that several students were very offended.

My response was defensive, and a polite conflict ensued. When I said that I talk this way with my Black friends, she had enough. She said I either begin the next section of my presentation with an apology or leave the building. I did as requested, but I was mighty unhappy. I didn’t understand what I had done wrong. When I ranted to my nephew, who was closer in age to the students, he was appalled with me and tried to explain things to me. I remained defensive. All these years later, it is now a joke between us about how ignorant I was.

That time I was the leader who needed to be schooled

Later in life, when I was an executive, I received feedback about a Latina on my team. She’s “too emotional”. She’s “too expressive”. She’s “too assertive”. I was asked to counsel her to “tone it down”. I thought it was my duty as her boss to say something. It was a tense, awkward conversation and she politely explained microaggressions. When she left my office, I did a deep dive into microaggressions so that I could understand things better.

There were other moments when I was uninformed, insensitive or just plain wrong. I only see this now in retrospect. At the time, I felt justified in my actions and perspectives.

All these years later, I am still learning and growing. And I am stunned at the insanity of our public discourse about diversity, equity and inclusion. I observe other white people responding with the ignorance and insensitivity that I once displayed. And much, much worse.


I know something needs to shift in how we are having this dialogue because what is happening isn’t working. I don’t claim to know the answer, but I keep asking one question. Why are we white people so defensive and reactive?

Each time I try to answer that question, I fall back on my considerable professional credentials. But now I think that is problematic. It is still coming from an abstract perspective. This time I’m going to make it personal. I’ll try to answer my question about myself and not the generic mass of white people.

So, why have I been (and sometimes still am) so defensive and reactive when I receive feedback that my words or actions have been discriminatory and insensitive? First, it doesn’t fit my self- image. Second, I don’t like when people tell me I am wrong. Third, I get upset when I discover I have hurt someone. In short, it makes me feel like shit. And when I feel that way, I either make it worse or shut down. I try to prove how not-bad I am by defending myself. I’m mortified that someone has unearthed a character flaw. I feel stupid for not knowing better. Once I’m done defending my position, I retreat into a hole. In my solitude, I replay the incident and vacillate between justifying my actions and trying to sort out what the next right thing to do is.

My difficult and messy inner dialogue

The dissonance between who I strive to be and how I act in certain moments is intense. I’ve come up with some strategies that have been helpful for me.

First, I admit that I was wrong and that I hurt someone. This is uncomfortable.

Second, I circle back to the person and apologize. This is uncomfortable for me but not so much for the other person.

Third, I educate myself by reading and listening and asking questions. This is not uncomfortable to do but can be hard to absorb.

Fourth, I resolve to listen with acceptance the next time I mess up, because I know it will happen again. This is so much less uncomfortable than going into battle. I take in the feedback and apologize immediately without needing to go into my hole.

Once I have sorted myself out, come off my high horse and just apologized for my actions, the other person has always responded with generosity. Whatever fears I had that the exchange would be hostile simply never materialized. So, these conversations are the least uncomfortable part of my reflective process.

I am not suggesting that my way is the way to do better. I’m only saying that we need to ask ourselves why we are so reactive when we are called out. And I’m trying to bring it down to me, instead of generalizing about all white people. By doing this, I’m trying to steer the solutions into a more personal and individual journey rather than the labels, name calling and generalizations that pass for dialogue these days.

It’s not about woke or cancel or tribal identities. It’s about being an introspective human being who values other human beings. It’s about finding a route to address systemic discrimination through small acts of personal responsibility and openness. It’s about not being shamed, demeaned or backed into a corner and not doing that to others. Bottom line, it’s about being honest with yourself. Never an easy task.

Maybe there is another path

I still don’t know how we find a more respectful, civil way to talk about diversity. But I have a hunch. Any difficult topic that is raised in a group or in public will usually lead to extreme discomfort and defensiveness. I know this is true for me. I feel knots in my stomach, my pulse races and my whole being prepares for a fight. I will not be taken down in front of others. Turning into an asshole becomes inevitable as my reptilian brain overrides my rational one. As much as I don’t like myself at these moments, I know that this is a very universal and human response.

So, my fellow white people, I’m thinking that we can make more progress when we have these conversations one-on-one. Groups, including diversity training sessions, are just too charged. Even if white people can feel empathy and compassion for the experiences of people of color, we don’t know what to do with the burden of historical responsibility. We may have a better shot at being personally responsible in the present tense in the context of ongoing relationships. That might be your sister-in-law, your colleague at work or your neighbor.

Discrimination, diversity, advantage and differences are huge systemic problems. As one white person, I don’t know how to solve those. But I do know how to interact with people in respectful ways and take responsibility for those moments when I mess up. Maybe that’s the best I can do. Maybe that’s the best thing to do.

I long for a time when we can revel in the richness of our differences and join in our shared humanity.

The Messy Truth Leadership Coaching Experience

I’m happy to announce a new leadership coaching service that Gavin Fenn-Smith and I are offering. After the successful launch of our book, The Messy Truth About Leading People, we wanted to extend our reach to leaders who are looking for affordable coaching. We also wanted to help organizations provide leadership development opportunities for their brightest talent.

The core part of this experience is a series of 24 private podcasts that guide leaders through a well constructed personal growth journey. Our emphasis is on self awareness, understanding other people and making meaningful connections. We do not suggest a template for good leadership. Instead, we help leaders express their unique selves. Our goal is to develop humane, compassionate leaders.

Learn more:

What does $300 get you?

Another great post by Melissa Gopnik, SVP Commonwealth

In the last week we have seen the resurgence of the discussion about whether additional federal unemployment payments are behind the current shortage of workers. Does anyone remember that we had this same debate in 2020? Last year, research found that people want to work, but only if they don’t have to jeopardize their health or the health of their families, and they have good quality child care. The only thing that has changed since then is that the unemployment supplement went down, from $600 per week to $300 per week.

Thanks to these extra payments some lower income families, disproportionately Black and Latinx families, have been able to do what many others take for granted – make choices. They have been able to choose to take care of their health, and the health of their loved ones; choose to keep their children safe by staying home with them; choose to increase their skills; choose to not go back to workplaces that are unsafe, physically or psychologically. More recent research found that nearly three million women left the U.S. workforce because of the pandemic, many of them quitting because of a lack of child care options.

White privilege, male privilege, economic privilege–all of these are talked about extensively. What they all have in common is a fundamental privilege denied to so many – the privilege to make choices that reflect one’s own specific situation, values, and aspirations. For some low-income workers, that privilege can be obtained for just $300 a week.

Business owners should focus on why workers, when they gain the privilege of making a choice, are choosing not to work for them. A business model that is built on an HR strategy of having a workforce that is captive – a workforce that is working for you because they have no other choice – should not be economically viable and should not be the driver of government policy.

As an HR professional working at nonprofits for over 20 years, I have interviewed hundreds of job seekers. In the non-profit ecosystem, there is an assumption that applicants want to work for your organization because of a commitment to your mission. Imagine a world where this same assumption could be made for all workplaces. There is instead an assumption that for some jobs people will only take them if they have no other choices. Can we not design a service job that someone actually wants? At Helen’s, a local family-owned restaurant my family has been going to for 15 years, the waitstaff has almost never changed. And I have heard stories about similar establishments in communities across the country. If they can do it, so can others.

We know, intuitively and based on research, how to design a “good” job. It is a job that fulfills not just your basic needs for safety, food, and shelter but also your need for self actualization. A good job is about more than just a fair wage. A good job is where you are treated with basic human dignity and respect. A good job is one where you are not expected to put up with sexual harassment or racism. I could cite the numerous studies that have found that people with jobs that meet these needs are more productive, engaged, and stay longer. But anyone who has ever supervised an engaged employee and a disgruntled employee, or has been one of these employees, doesn’t need data to know this is true. 

The unstated assumption in the US today is that only certain people should be able to choose a “good job”. Lower income Americans are expected to take whatever job is offered to them. The federal unemployment checks have upended that expectation. 

One theme of 2020 was bringing into the light the many systemic inequities built into our economic, political, and cultural systems. The pushback against additional federal payments has exposed the inequity of who gets to make choices about where they work. Business owners and HR professionals should think of this as an opportunity for innovation and experimentation. 2020 was a year of rethinking many of the fundamentals of how businesses operate. 2021 should be the year that we rethink how we design jobs so that everyone has the privilege to pick a job that is good for them and their families. 

What do “Financial Education” & “Stranger Danger” have in common?

(This is a great post is written by Melissa Gopnik, SVP Commonwealth)

Six years ago when I went  from working to prevent sexual violence  to working to prevent financial insecurity it felt like a major change in my life. What could these two fields possibly have in common?

This month I have been reflecting about this again since my inbox has been filled with both issues; April is both Sexual Assault Awareness and Financial Literacy month. They have more in common than I thought.

A central message of my presentations while at the rape crisis center was that survivors make the best decisions they can within the specific circumstances they are presented with. To prevent sexual violence, we all need to change those existing circumstances – for example, the legal, educational, and gender systems. Sexual violence is never the survivor’s fault.

A central message of my current presentations on financial security is that people make the best financial decisions they can within the specific circumstances they are presented with. To prevent financial insecurity, we all need to change those existing circumstances:  for example, the financial, employment, and class systems. Financial insecurity is never the individual’s fault.

I have faced the same resistance from both audiences – an instinctive belief that if people were “just educated” – if they understood how to budget, or not to walk alone at night –  that this would prevent bad things from happening. It would be comforting to be able to believe this; that if  my daughter understands the magic of compound interest or never walks down a dark street alone she will be financially secure and physically safe. But I would be fooling myself.

Believing that we can prevent bad things from happening by our own actions is natural.  Our collective narrative tells us that our future depends on what we do. The story we want to believe champions that we go from rags to riches through perseverance and grit. In response to this overwhelming narrative of individual agency, I find myself positing a seemingly extreme argument: that individual actions are irrelevant! I have seen the harm that is done every time a survivor is told, even subtly, that they should have prevented the assault, or when someone who is struggling to feed their family is told they are bad at managing their money.

And yet I also know from 35 years of working for social change, and my own experiences as a woman, that being and feeling in control and having choices in our lives is central to healing and hope.  The privilege of choice, as I wrote last year, is one of the most important and yet overlooked privileges.  What we often forget is that our ability to have choices is also dictated by the circumstances – the systems  – that we live within. 

What do “financial education” and “stranger danger” have in common? They both are examples of well-intentioned efforts that, given limited resources, are a misdirected use of time and money.  They are based on our wishes for how the world should work, not on what we know is needed to prevent harm and suffering.  Our focus needs to be on changing the systems we live within.

Changing systems is complicated and takes time but, as with any journey, it starts with taking a first step. Take 15 minutes to list the 3 systems that most affect your life right now – it could be your local school system if you have children; the criminal justice system if you have family who are incarcerated or who are returning citizens; the food system if your options for buying food are limited. Now, next time you interact with that system  – when you get a school form that does not have choices that represent the gender identity of all children; when you see that your employer routinely asks for criminal records checks for all positions; when you are looking for a vegetable and they don’t have it at the supermarket – pause and ask yourself if there is one action you could take to challenge the system. Could you ask a question of someone in authority?  Write a letter? Attend a meeting? Talk to your family or friends? Post on social media? Give money to organizations working to change that system?  

If you are in a position of power and privilege, do this same analysis for the systems that you have control or influence over: why do my school forms have the choices they do? Why do I have to ask about people’s criminal past and can I change what I do with that information? What can I do to change the food that I am selling? And when someone challenges what you are doing, pause, listen, reflect, and then take action.

These small actions may seem inconsequential compared to the suffering we see around us every day. But, as a long time activist, I have come to realize that a first small step in a different direction is how you go from feeling lost and on the wrong path to having hope and being on the right path.

The Year We All Went Crazy

I’ve been trying to make sense of the insanity of humanity during this year of isolation and loss. Of course, a pandemic will do unusual things to all of us. Stress, anxiety, confusion, anger, sadness. All to the extreme. The end results are groups turning against other groups, individuals lashing out at other individuals, political parties retreating to their corners and ending civil dialogue, countries going it alone, the breakdown of connectedness.

When living beings experience threat and danger, they can either fight or flee. This is on full display in the US. The activities in the public square, the peaceful and violent ones, are about fight. Fight the injustices, fight the long and painful discrimination, fight the system. Fight the encroaching “others”, fight the progressive cultural trends, fight the shifting sands. One camp wants to face the truth of the past to create a different future. The other wants to create a future that looks like the past. Both groups fear extinction and are fighting for their survival.

Those that are in flight mode are hidden from view. You won’t see them in the streets or in any public forum. They are hunkered down in their homes struggling with the same fears about how to survive. Depression, suicidal thoughts, addictions, deteriorating mental health have put these people on the edge of extinction as well. Each day challenges their inner resolve to make it to the next day.

These individual and group worries, fears, resentments, and fragilities existed long before this past year. Our history, institutions, divisions and discord are woven into the fabric of this country. The pandemic just blew the lid off. The stress released the expression of what was just below the surface. Indignation and rage over the mistreatment of people of color was met with the eruption of verbal and physical violence against people of color. The insistence on letting science guide us out of this crisis was met with rageful denial of science. The march for all people to share the same rights and access was met with legislation to prevent just that. Concerns about the liberalization of cultural norms was met with derision.

The expression of these worries has been wrapped up in political, constitutional, or philosophical language. It is a fight for democracy as defined by each camp. But this craziness is more about unstable mental health expressed through the lens of isms. One group personalizes their pain and points to our history and institutions as the root cause. The other side expresses their pain by raging at individuals or social trends. Each group is battling to dominate the other, thus regaining a sense of control and equilibrium. From that desired place, the thinking goes, hope will return, and depression will lift.

Sadly, winning the fight will not bring calm or reestablish good mental health. Fight begets more fight begets more fight. To resolve the emotional crisis, we need to stop looking outside ourselves and turn inward. And that feels scarier to most of us. That feels like a dark, bottomless pit that may take us into corners we’d rather avoid. Fighting provides energy and distraction from the true source of our anxieties and fears. As they say in AA, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” We can’t make the virus disappear, but we can wear masks and get vaccinated. We can’t stop the changing demographics, but we can shift our point of view about it. We can’t persuade others to follow our political leanings, but we can listen better to our differences.

These world events are most certainly overwhelming and distressing. They are wreaking havoc on our well-being. Most of us vacillate between fight and flight on a daily or hourly basis. It is challenging to rediscover a healthy homeostasis. And being isolated is compounding the panic. Ordinarily, being with loved ones or engaging in shared activities (work, exercise, vacations) pulls us out of our depressing moments and we feel better. Now we are gathering on screens and platforms that amplify the darker, scarier, crazier elements. We are swamped by too much questionable input. But sitting at home, in front of our screens, we are ranting into space to alleviate that sense of impending doom. Again, anger is fuel. And if you are worried about sinking into a hole, anger can jettison you out of it. It sure beats getting sucked under.

I can’t claim to know how to resolve the macro issues our country faces. For sure, it’s hardly surprising that the primordial ooze that is the underbelly of the United States has been unleashed in recent years. But I do think we need to reframe this moment so we can move forward. We have all, individually, gone crazy. For some, the response was to fight, to assert power, to scream from the mountain tops, to howl at the moon. For others, the response was to retreat, to crawl back into bed and pull the covers up. Neither of these are visions of great mental health.

So, the sane response would be to take personal responsibility to get right. Stop going down kooky rabbit holes that don’t pass the commonsense sniff test. Stop screaming at people. Get a grip on your anger. Find healthier energy sources. Get medications if the darkness is pervasive and persistent. Stop threatening or inflicting violence on others. Come back to reality by focusing on factual information, science and moderation. Stop trying to assert power over others and start sharing again. Learn methods for calming yourself. Stop seeing everything in absolutes and extremes. Remember that living is all about nuance and kindness and generosity. Find ways to reconnect in caring, humane ways.

We must stop being crazy. We must remember that we are all just human beings. We are made of the same stuff and want the same things. We want to love ourselves, be loved by others and feel a sense of community and connection. We each need to rediscover our own humanity and recognize the same in others. That’s the only way back to sanity.

A bloody nose for billionaire capitalism by Gavin Fenn-Smith

Last week, finally, billionaire capitalism was stopped in its tracks. Over the past 40 years, the steady accumulation of wealth and power has resulted in billionaires being able to do whatever they like. But, last week, they had to think again. Soccer fans showed that collective power, if channelled correctly, can stop egregious and greedy billionaire capitalism. 

For 40 years ‘Billionaire Capitalism’ has created a culture where just a few accumulate economic power, can keep that power, and can re-distribute massive sums of money to themselves by more and more favorable tax codes. ‘Billionaire Capitalism’ is the shorthand for 40 years of neo-liberal capitalism when that great lie of ’trickle-down economics’ has been the dominant practice. Of course, there never was any trickle-down, only a constant shovel-up to the richest of the rich. It is a system that pretends to promote ‘market forces’. But, in reality, it seeks monopoly power, and hates competition. Just look at Facebook, Google, Amazon. 

The wealth accumulated over these past 40 years has been staggering. All the growth in income has gone to the very richest; the rest have gained virtually no income growth. But this week perhaps the people are fighting back. They rejected the cartel that the billionaires created called the European Super League. It was an approach to sports that copies what exists in the US already, which looks and sounds like a cartel.

Two examples of this. First, in recent decades in the US, the billionaire owners have ‘persuaded’ local authorities to redirect taxpayers money in to the building of new sports stadiums. And second, they have fine-tuned a sports business model where it is not possible not to make money. It is a sports model that sounds very much like a cartel. These are not truly competitive sports leagues; they are entertainment vehicles that just happen use sports as their content. It would be hard to design an economic system to guarantee profits any better. Barriers to entry are intentionally set high. There is no jeopardy if a team loses. And, the US anti-trust system somehow just let them do it. 

So, after 40 years, the billionaires thought they could export this sports model to Europe. The owners of twelve of the biggest soccer clubs on the planet conceived in secret a new cartel called the European Super League. They launched it late on a Sunday night with a short memo that described the cartel, and how it will be good for everyone because money will trickle down to smaller teams. 

By Tuesday morning, it had collapsed in ruins and ignominy. 

The immediate hostility was widespread from everyone –  and not least from the billionaires’ own employees – the star soccer players and coaches. But also from governments; anti-trust legislation was threatened to stop the process, diplomatic relations were questioned. 

One would think that, before launching, the billionaire owners must have assessed the potential opposition to their plans to create a cartel. The instant and immediate opposition must have shocked them. They are used to getting what the want.

Almost worse was the shameful lack of leadership behind the idea and its launch. They did not advocate for their plan at all. They did not defend it. Only one of them came forward in public to talk about it. They left their own employees (players and coaches), who had heard about its existence the day before, to field all the questions from the media and to face the public anger. They were thrown under the bus by the billionaires. 

What can we learn from this? Governments must step in to break up cartels, surely. They must step in to stop cartels, and the march to monopoly. And we are reminded that whoever has the good leaders can have hope. Users/customers/fans also can now realize that social media gives them a voice in decisions. And ‘stars’, whether sports stars or film stars, or social media stars have an outsized influence and can create big change because of their leadership status. 

I’m Expanding What Appears Here

Over the years I have resisted commenting on leadership as it is displayed in the public square. I’ve kept the focus on organizations and how to improve your own leadership abilities. But I spend a great deal of time away from this blog thinking, talking, analyzing bigger issues. Where leadership sits at the intersection of sociology, psychology, politics, cultural shifts, neuropsychology and history. We are in a time of enormous change and we need to see the ripple effect our leadership actions have beyond our own companies.

Some of what will be posted here are just thinking out loud pieces that I hope will provoke your own curiosity and exploration. Some will be commentaries and ways of connecting the dots about larger social issues. Others will be about social justice and the role each of us can play as leaders. And some posts will just be lighthearted.

I hope you will appreciate this shift and that you will forward these posts to your network. My ideal would be to begin an interactive dialogue here about big challenges that require new approaches to leading. I invite you to join the conversation.

The first post in this new direction is written by my business partner, and Brit extraordinaire, Gavin Fenn-Smith. PS. He is a huge soccer (sic. football) fanatic.

%d bloggers like this: