Protests and the Need for Compassionate Leaders

June 02, 2020
5 min read
Photo Credit: Eli Wilson / Shutterstock

We can all experience a compressed course in leadership by listening to the responses and observing the actions of U.S. public figures during the ongoing protests against systemic police violence that disproportionally targets black and brown Americans. With the Pandora’s Box of acute challenges open before us, some political and local leaders are stepping up to engage in collaborative problem solving and chart a way forward to resolve rather than perpetuate historic inequities. Others are in a zero-sum mindset, abandoning nuance and pitting groups against one another as a political calculation. On the private-sector front, some business leaders are writing to the public in words that ring with authenticity and taking action to support the movement for police reform; others send messages that fall flat given the self-interest they entail. And some are waiting too long to speak up, losing their moment to make a difference.

There are examples of leaders across the world laying out a path for justice and support. Local leaders in the GMF alumni network advocate for police reform and unify their communities. For example, in the United Kingdom, Sanchia Alasia (TILN 2013), a councillor in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, worked to get her Council and those of several other cities to light up civic buildings in purple to symbolize bravery in the face of injustice on June 2. In the United States, in the midst of his run for mayor of Baltimore, Council President Brandon Scott (TILN 2017) called for peaceful demonstrations, stating: “I'm proud to represent all of Baltimore. I take that charge seriously. But I'm also a black man. I am tired and I feel your pain and frustration. We have to be able to express that in protest. But we have to stay peaceful and we must stay safe.” These comments were followed by a peaceful youth-led demonstration in which he participated. Even as leaders are stepping up, we are faced with facts this week that thousands of demonstrators have been arrested, while police are still operating by the status quo. To make lasting change, this work will require sustained commitment and support from us all.

Police leaders share the responsibility to lead with integrity and compassion. One example is Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields who well before the current conflagration was an expert in the practice of inclusive leadership. Chief Shields showed what it means to listen empathetically to people in a crowd. She has also modeled a needed change by immediately terminating employees who are causing harm. “Our behaviors cannot consistently be pardoned because we are law enforcement,” she said. As she models compassion, Atlanta police on June 1 can be seen kneeling with Atlanta demonstrators.

Well-known public figures must also do their part. Many can be inspired by Congressman Corey Booker, who not only speaks fearlessly of love, but also focuses his comments on substantive changes that he is attempting to initiate through legislation. This includes mandatory racial-bias training, a registry for police misconduct, required reporting of use-of-force incidents, and a ban on religious and racial profiling. Likewise, former President Barack Obama shares advice with activists about how to reshape the legal system. In an essay he explains, “The more specific we can make demands for criminal justice and police reform, the harder it will be for elected officials to just offer lip service.”

In a private-sector example, Tim Cook of Apple sent a memo to employees acknowledging the fear that many are feeling, due to “everyday experience of deeply rooted discrimination.” He notes that the company is making donations to groups that are challenging racial injustice, as well as matching employee donations. Calling for change, he wrote: “George Floyd’s death is shocking and tragic proof that we must aim far higher than a ‘normal’ future, and build one that lives up to the highest ideals of equality and justice.” His approach is to discuss the topic within the company with a message of empathy, and to give Apple an external role as a change agent. Yet the wider circle of Silicon Valley leaders is tested as they make decisions on how to balance free speech and incitement to violence, and donations do not cancel out the vitriol and violence that posts on mass platforms can unleash.

Why is it so important for leaders to call us to our better selves? In the United States, the stress level has been building for some years. A U.S. Census study indicates that currently, slightly over one-third of Americans are showing signs of clinical anxiety or depression. Neuroscience indicates that stress and depression can actually shrink the brain and with a large proportion of the country in this alarming state, it is not on track to address the problems that it needs to solve. In contrast to fear-based, negative thinking, positive emotions make us smarter. In fact, leaders who bring out the best in us also inspire us to find the most effective solutions to our challenges.

Do most people have the same thing in mind when they imagine a leader to guide them through a time of crisis? Though in periods of anger people may turn to a negative leader to reflect that anger, looking back over history the leaders who are most beloved are those who called us to our higher ideals. Finally, a time of crisis like the current one not only reminds us of the qualities we admire in some of our long-standing leaders, but also brings new leaders to the fore. This is a time to also discern the talents of a new generation of leaders who will be stepping up to help shape a more just future.