Leadership Urgency: The Human Dimension of Business

“It comes as a great shock to discover, the country which is your birthplace, and to which you owe your life and your identity, has not in its whole system of reality evolved any place for you.”

James Baldwin, 1955

James Baldwin is the perfect intellectual for this moment. He grappled with the absurdity of the persistence of racism in America and perfectly captures the sentiment we must all now embrace: urgency. America has again realized it’s racist. But this time, people say it will be different. Businesses say it will be different. And yet, the most successful business minds aren’t capable of solving the simplest of the DEI imperatives, diversity. So how do we ensure it is actually going to be different?

First, we must realize businesses don’t have room for the kind of human evolution being asked of them. It’s simply not what they were designed to do. We need leaders who can transform organizations in a way they’ve never been asked to transform before: to fully account for the human dimension of business. In order to lead transformation at this depth, first you have to develop yourself to navigate this level of complexity. Is your leadership development preparing you to help facilitate this transition? In my experience, probably not.

Leadership development was made for a world that no longer exists. It was made for a world where businesses could get away with being solely focused on their bottom line. The Third Evolution of leadership is here. Second Evolution leaders could exist in a business-only worldview, but society is now pressuring businesses to take responsibility for their part in furthering wealth inequality, racial injustice, and the climate crisis. Businesses are being forced to take a more holistic view of the impact they have on the human ecosystems they rely on to fund their bottom lines.

Following George Floyd’s murder, BLM, and the capital riots, businesses have found themselves in a moment they are wholly unprepared to meet. The number of companies who have proclaimed themselves antiracist is nowhere near the number of companies whose structures, practices, pay, and actions further diversity, belonging, inclusion, equity, and justice. In order to truly start to upend structural racism, we must begin by recognizing businesses have played a central role in furthering structural inequity. And then, we must realize that businesses do not yet have the capacity to truly stop furthering inequity.

The current solutions being utilized to solve these issues are clearly not the way forward. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Slack all had between 5% – 7% of employees identify as Hispanic or Latinx. Looking at their leadership numbers, it’s as low as 2%. Each company had less than 1% improvement Y/Y, most were around .5%–we are clearly not solving the diversity problem anytime soon at this rate. As long as DEI is outsourced to a consultant for a couple trainings, the progress that’s needed won’t be made.

Leaders must step into a journey of maturation and evolve their ability to integrate complexity or we will find ourselves here, again, at another moment of moral reckoning for our country. Only the next time it happens, my daughter may be my age, or my granddaughter, and the compound interest of racism in America would have been furthered for at least another generation.

We must make massive strides on this problem during our lifetimes. As leaders, we have to fully own that a part of our legacy will be our ability to evolve the impact our businesses have on all people. It’s immensely complex and requires action. And we know it can be done. We have to start with urgently recognizing businesses have to evolve. They must be fully responsible for the human dimension of their impact. We need mature leaders to guide these transformations.

Companies are waking up to the reality that their business practices further entrench inequity. The invitation is there to proactively engage with the complexity, deep work, and systems-level solutions that are required to move the needle.

I’ll let Baldwin have the final word.

“I was born here almost 60 years ago. I’m not going to live another 60 years. You always told me it takes time. It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brother’s and my sister’s time, my niece’s and my nephew’s time. How much time do you want for your progress?”

James Baldwin

Emily Gendron
Emily Gendron

Emily is the Director of Leadership Development at OwlHub Inc. Emily is committed to developing leaders who exude their humanness in all they do. She is dedicated to using her gifts to close the opportunity gap in our society.