There is a pink elephant in the corner…..and it’s YOU. Before you come to the conclusion that this post is just another story of how an African American man survived in a corporate culture that didn’t reflect his, hear me out you may just be surprised at the twist. Yes, I’ve been in corporate environments where I’ve been the only African American period and yes there is a “Transition”….notice I didn’t say assimilation. I absolutely detest the word “assimilation” and you hear it frequently when the discussion centers around purposeful steps minorities take to be accepted among the majority. The classic definition of assimilation is: The process by which a person or persons acquire the social and psychological characteristics of a group. I firmly disagree with the premise of the definition because it assumes the group being assimilated too is going to accept a person’s ability to acquire their characteristics. I’ve long come to the conclusion that in order for someone to be able to acquire the social and psychological characteristics of another race while at the same time excelling at their job requires a beyond comprehensible skill set. Being accepted and agreeing to accept requires cooperation on both ends and if there’s a bottleneck anywhere in that process then there’s no such thing as assimilation. There is however a “Transition” process that takes place and as I’ve highlighted in the title takes a great deal of “True Leadership”. Take for example the following story that I’ll never forget and I’m extremely grateful to have been a part of:
In the middle of my sophomore year in college I decided to do what appears to be unpopular these days and pledge into a fraternity. The decision to pledge wasn’t a difficult one I was extremely impressed by my future brothers and I wanted quite frankly to surround myself around African American brothers who were polished, intelligent and about business. At that time many of the fraternities & sororities were inclusive, very little diversity….well, until my pledge line came into existence. Prior to pledging I did not know who my line brothers would be, all I was concerned about was getting through the pledging process. When our pledging line was finalized there were 4 of us myself being the 1st line member (because I was the shortest…not due to intelligence). Our line name was affectionately called “Controversy” and back then the word controversy was famous by a little musical genius by the name of Prince. However, that’s not why we became known as “Controversy” we were given that name because we were a handful for our big brothers (haha!!)…but we also had the only white male in the entire fraternity on our line. My sans (e.g. line brother) “Mike” was AWESOME. I’m not sure even today if he understands the impact he made on my life and I’m sure other frat brothers due to his strength, humility, leadership and importantly compassion. During a time when it was inconceivable that someone who didn’t fit a demographic of an organization be included, Mike’s introduction into the organization was groundbreaking. The way Mike carried himself wasn’t in the sense of trying to assimilate he knew he brought special talents and diversity to the organization, and the organization saw the immediate value of those talents and the benefits obtained from the diversity. From a fraternity standpoint I cannot tell you how proud I was and continue to be of the men who didn’t get caught up into the pigment of someone’s skin, but evaluated ALL OF US on the content of our character and the principles and values that uphold the fraternity credo. “True Leadership” was demonstrated on both ends, from Mike who wasn’t concerned about assimilating and my fraternity who was colorblind and remained true to themselves by being….. polished, intelligent and about business.
There were a mountain of lesson’s learned from my time with Mike and observing how he carried himself as the only white in an all black fraternity, but there’s one lesson that stands among all…SELF-IDENTITY LEADERSHIP. You see, Mike experienced what I myself and millions of others who find themselves the only “minority” in the room have experience…being the only one. The “being the only one” mentality takes a tremendous amount of confidence, humility, intelligence and self-identity leadership to work through. Along with “Happiness” next in line is “Self –Identity” as the most coveted personal google search. Unless you’ve been in an environment where you pretty much represented yourself it may be difficult to understand how leadership can come from that self-identity; however for those of you who have I’m sure you comprehend the logic. The reality is that it takes a long time developing this sense of self-identity and unfortunately not having it on hand has destroyed many careers. There are countless examples how being the only “minority” has had devastating effects on the individual and company, and conversely when leadership existed it became quite an inspirational experience. There’s awareness from an individual point of view that “my presence provides value, my work provides diversity”….repeat “my presence provides value, my work provides diversity”. I came up with that philosophy because I truly thought as many do that my presence only signified diversity which was a mistake and it removed the “VALUE” which strengthens the character of that diversity. A little deep I know (haha!!), but it addresses the self-identity leadership one needs to have to overcome the “being the only one” mentality. There’s self-identity leadership from a company point of view, and a similar philosophy of (“my presence provides value, my work provides diversity”) follows as well. Companies that have the best track record of success for better or worst….know who they are. The company who consistently hires and attracts people based on an inclusionary metric and does so purposely you can argue has a solid sense of self-identity albeit obsolete. Those companies who see value in diversity simply don’t respond to the “being the only one” mentality, they respond to execution and results from every employee period. One of the greatest books I’ve ever read “Cracking the Corporate Code” (The Revealing Success Stories of 32 African-American Executives) continues to have the most profound impact on my career. The book provides an in-depth look at the careers of 32 African American executives who recount their impressive and widely differing career trajectories, revealing what motivated and discouraged them. Providing examples of self-identity leadership they explain the support and conflict they had to go through to excel in organizations like PepsiCo, GE, Merrill Lynch, Kraft, Prudential, Chrysler, and dozens more. Below are captions from the book:
I have had numerous conversations with people who say, why should I have to compromise my individuality just to get along with those people? That attitude means you’re going to have trouble wherever you go. If you’re going to be successful, you are going to have to learn how to be culturally flexible, and cultural flexibility is something blacks are very good at.
Edward “Chuck” Chaplin, Senior Vice President and Treasurer (Prudential Financial, Inc)
As I got more experience and moved into leadership roles, I expressed more of who I am, not less.
Linda Baker Keene, Vice President (ret) (American Express)
In every relationship throughout the organization, being a black American is a salient feature. There are times you feel uncomfortably visible, as if in a fishbowl. At other times you feel you are not seen at all. Not very long ago—not even two generations—each black in corporate America was in fact isolated as “the first” and “the only” We can learn much from how they dealt with their isolation. Lloyd Trotter eventually became president and chief executive officer of one of GE’s largest operating divisions, but in 1963 he literally had to push open the corporate door. His willingness to take that small step, to withstand the isolation and then build out from it, was in fact an early indication of his eventual corporate success. These acts of will, simple but strong, are available to everyone.
I encourage ALL of you who are reading this post to pick up a copy of “Cracking the Corporate Code” no matter what race, gender or religion you represent, the book is fantastic and inspiring.
Connecting with and valuing your own culture, background, and heritage will take away this sense of being the only “Minority”. The word “Minority” is a relative term that can be devaluing as well as inaccurate, and the inaccuracy comes from how we “Self-Identify” through our leadership. Always remember “my presence provides value”, “my work provides diversity”….repeat “my presence provides value”, “my work provides diversity”.
To my frat G.O.M.A.B!
Being the only MINORITY….true leadership!
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