A Crisis of Leadership at MIZZOU: Why White Male Leaders Must Learn the Language of Inclusion

Jonathan Butler speaks for the Concerned Students 1950 at a press conference at MU on Monday, Nov. 9, 2015. (Allison Long/Kan
Jonathan Butler speaks for the Concerned Students 1950 at a press conference at MU on Monday, Nov. 9, 2015. (Allison Long/Kansas City Star/TNS via Getty Images)

I had mixed feelings as I watched University of Missouri President, Tim Wolfe, stand before the cameras and deliver his mild mannered mea culpa and ultimate resignation. I was glad that finally someone this high up was being made to account for an institution's failure to listen to and take seriously the concerns of their black students. But President Wolfe's lowered head, his measured and halted speech, and his inability to utter one word of apology made the entire press conference seem lackluster and pro forma.

On the other hand, the decision made by Jonathan Butler, a 25-year old student, to go on a hunger strike to protest what he and others believe was the University of Missouri's failure to adequately address bigotry on campus was very impressive and impactful. Likewise, I was impressed, frankly surprised, and moved by the refusal of the entire University of Missouri football team and their coaches to play in their nationally televised game against BYU -- or even practice ahead of time -- an act of solidarity that brought national attention to Butler's call for the resignation of President Wolfe.

The undeniable effectiveness and boldness of these protests lay in stark juxtaposition to the lack of stewardship and proper attention paid to important issues by school leaders. While I am grateful that Butler, the football team, and the diverse body of students who supported them led a swift and powerful movement to hold the school responsible, I found myself thinking that although this battle may be won, how are these students going to achieve the environment they are demanding and so rightly deserve? The University of Missouri, like so many other institutions can be well intended, but that intent is often coupled with the repeated reality that most officially appointed leaders in our nation's schools, companies and communities lack the awareness, skills and courage it takes to create the inclusive, respectful and nurturing environments needed for people of all backgrounds to thrive.

Of course, the issues of racism, sexism, religious intolerance and other forms of personal and institutional bias against marginalized groups are not unique or new at our academic establishments. For decades, students from non-majority groups have arrived on campuses with great excitement -- only to find themselves trying to learn in environments that did not expect them, reflect them or respect them. Some will point to the middle of the country and stereotype those there as not as open or respectful of difference. But the issue of racism and other forms of bigotry are everywhere in our country.

Last week, I spoke to an East Coast graduate school audience of students, professors, and administrators about what it takes to create a culturally competent learning environment where people of all backgrounds feel respected and included. I had been called in because of a racially-charged incident among the student body that brought into sharper focus even more troubling issues of exclusion and bias experienced by people of color and women. Significantly, the leaders of this institution decided not to hide, downplay, or deny the problem. Instead, they engaged and worked to understand the complex issues. The top leader made it his business to talk to the individuals, the offenders and the offended, and together with student, faculty and administrative voices, he began to develop a plan to address the issues that had surfaced, including learning how to have authentic conversations and learning to be more culturally competent.

The work of transforming an institution whose foundation was shaped by exclusive and supremacist ways of thinking -- which is, incidentally, true of most of our established American organizations -- into a multi-cultural, anti-racist institution takes an enormous commitment, a deep understanding of culture, an intolerance for denying the impact of exclusion and bias, and bold, courageous, and inclusive leadership. I have worked with many leaders, most of them white, male, straight and protestant. I have seen brilliant, capable executives cower and become impotent when they are asked to speak to issues of difference, especially racial issues. They are often blind-sided and ineffective when faced with demands for fairness and respect from those who have put their trust in their organization. They have no framework for understanding institutional racism and the way biases against certain groups have been embedded into the organizations that they care so deeply about. Instead of moving forward with conviction to solve the issues, they remain paralyzed with the fear of saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing, angering the wrong people, and ultimately lose their footing. They are often tone deaf to the voices that are appealing to their leadership because they have not been taught to listen and their privilege has drawn small circles of comfort around them -- even as they have been appointed to lead a diverse group of people. They take the demand for change personally, and even though they can see signs that something might be wrong, they seem unwilling to change the institution in any significant way.

However, many leaders in the private and public spheres are starting to realize that they can no longer remain good leaders without understanding how to recognize and adapt to difference in a way that will enhance their institutions' survival in our constantly changing world. I remember coaching one of these CEO's who was determined to get it right, to expand his comfort zone and ability to see what was beyond his experience and culture. When we first started, I had to convince him that it was okay for him to say, "people of color" to a person of color. We had to practice the phrase out loud before he felt comfortable. He ultimately developed a facility with the language of inclusion, and a greater ease and authenticity in his relationships with the people themselves. As he became more proactive rather than reactive, an inclusive tone was set for all, policies changed, and his leaders were evaluated based on how well they practiced inclusion in hiring, promotions, mentoring and opportunity.

What I think Missouri shows us is that, often, leaders of these organizations don't seem to understand what time it is. The "Black Lives Matter" movement has become a wake-up call emboldening people of all backgrounds, especially young people, to stand up and say, "No more!" At this point in history, you can't be an effective leader unless you are culturally aware and inclusive. Students can't be appeased with a few budget increases, conducting one session on diversity, and hiring a visiting professor of color. Real change will require deep introspection and examination of the institution and those who are leading it. These leaders have to be willing to look humbly and honestly into their own worldviews and the way those views have been impacted by racism. Ultimately, they have to believe that difference is not to be feared, covered or contained -- rather it is to be understood, respected and seen as a powerful asset. True leaders are curious and eager to hear the stories of those different from themselves, even when those narratives are painful and point to shortcomings in the institution.

Most importantly, they have to be willing to examine the culture and practices of the establishment, and in doing so, be willing to let go of "the way we always do things." There may be apparent comfort and predictability in these practices, but a fierce commitment to the status quo is a ticking time bomb contaminated with exclusion and bigotry. Inclusive leaders have to be bold enough to tell beneficiaries of the status quo that it is time they relinquish some of their power and privilege so that the organization can accomplish its mission, be relevant, and able to thrive in the future.