White Leaders Taking Risks

I have the good fortune to spend time interacting with leaders, mostly business leaders, some NFP, governmental or community.  Recently several white leaders have told me stories that share a common theme:  stepping out and taking risks in order to counter historical institutional racism.  A few examples:

The white CEO of a publicly-held company in another city told me that he had a position opening on his management team.  He was determined to find a qualified minority candidate, specifically, an African-American since the company is headquartered in a city with a population that is near-majority Black.  He was also determined to establish a more diverse team in the belief that fresh, varied cultural perspectives would increase the group’s creativity and sensitivity to the realities of its employees and customers.

He was undertaking this with the clear-eyed recognition that several members of his Board of Directors were not aligned with his conviction that this restricted search was sensible.  He learned indirectly that a couple had “cronies” in mind for the spot.  They characterized his strategy as “simply some charitable gesture” and not a sound business practice.  Their skepticism was not likely to disappear once a Black person was hired.  He knew his own reputation would be on the line as they scrutinized the new person’s performance.


The white female head of a Not-for-Profit agency needed to hire a new Chief Finance Officer.  She has a leadership team that is all white except one Hispanic person.  She is well aware that the constituents they serve are majority minority, as are many of the organization’s employees.

She told me they had spent months searching for an African-American person with the combination of experience and credentials to fit that profile.  Finally, determined to meet the goal of diversifying, she proposed that the position be redefined, that they hire a person qualified to handle the basics of the position, and commit to helping that person “grow into” the CFO through mentoring and professional development.  The proposal met some stiff opposition from her Board, but she persisted in articulating the rationale.  That person is now on her staff, though some Board members remain wary of the wisdom of this approach.


And lastly, I was fortunate to interview a college president who is white about diversity and inclusion in their student selection process.  This leader extolled the benefits of a diverse student body, citing the numerous studies that reinforce the value of diversity in preparing students for a real-world, global economy.  Despite receiving numerous disparaging (sometimes ugly) messages from alumni, and encountering resistance from some Board members, this leader has persisted over several years in creating a campus that mirrors the make-up of the society these students will inhabit.

S/he cited many instances of breakthroughs, sometimes occurring after the inevitable clashes that occur when “strangers” meet.  S/he noted that white students particularly were often emerging from the white bubbles of their neighborhoods and schools, recognizing the biases they had inhaled, and finding connections.  For Black students, the challenge was to risk being real with the “others” they had learned to mistrust.

I’m struck by several common threads in these three stories:

1.  Most notable to me is that NOT A SINGLE ONE of these leaders cited Affirmative Action as a motivator for their actions!  In fact, the college president recounted a brief history of Affirmative Action, tracing it back to its rocky start (e.g., convoluted quota systems) and the fact that the Supreme Court has taken the teeth out of the law, tooth by tooth, over the years.  It’s a non-factor for these leaders.  Their preference has nothing to do with compliance with a law that is rarely upheld, but instead is propelled by the values which the law was originally meant to promote.

2.  All three were operating with conviction about the benefits of diversity.  This recognition is increasingly common among leaders as experience and evidence verify the benefits (See upcoming Rochester Business Journal workshop below).  In a way this could be viewed as self-serving for these organizations.  Yet in speaking with these particular leaders, it was evident that they sensed a “rightness” about this way of viewing their choices.

3.  These leaders also gave evidence of their intentional efforts to expand their own knowledge of the historical blocks faced by People of Color, and the recognition of their own complicity in upholding institutional bias.

4.  Finally, all these leaders articulated the risks inherent in their actions – their own reputation was on the line – with their Boards, other employees, their constituents, their funding sources, the very people who would decide if this leader’s contract would be renewed.  They are each aware that their future is at stake, that “the jury is out”.  They’ve acted on the courage of their convictions.


We can learn, attend workshops, feel terrible when we see racial incidents on FB or TV.  We can contend that we’re “all about equality”.  Yet until we put ourselves on the line for risk (status, power, reputation, money), until we take actions that feel perilous in our spheres of influence, we remain complicit in the continuation of racism.

You’re encouraged to “Leave a Reply” below.


Rochester Business Journal sponsors:  Diversity & Inclusion Mastermind Summit; learn why diversity is important for your business.  Tues. June 11, 7:30 am to noon.

A blog post from James Mulholland “Things I Didn’t Know” A fascinating list of his discoveries since he began exploring racism.

Two programs offered by the National Coalition Building Institute (click to learn more/register):

May 29 9:00 am to 4:00 pm:  “LAST CHANCE FOR EDEN”:  This workshop is based on a powerful film entitled “Last Chance for Eden”. The movie portrays nine people at a weekend retreat focusing on racism and sexism.

June 12 9:00 am to 4:00 pm:  “PRIVILEGE”:  Privilege and entitlement are trigger words, especially for white people on matters of race. This workshop explores how privilege shapes our sense of self and our interactions…

See list of upcoming events sponsored by 540WMain (click here to learn more/register) beginning with “Introduction to White Privilege” May 14, 6:30 pm.


Tuesday May 28, 6:00 – 8:00: Rochester City School District’s Racial Equity Advocacy Leadership (REAL) Team, established September 2018. Open to the public. Meets at RCSD Central Office 131 W. Broad St. (Cor. of S. Plymouth Ave.). Be a witness to, and support, efforts to address racial inequities in the school system. Come and learn!

Follow United Christian Leadership Ministry on Facebook, to be alerted to their educational and advocacy actions.


2 thoughts on “White Leaders Taking Risks”

  1. These stories seem to me to be the bare minimum that the “white leaders” should be doing. Let’s move the lens away from their risk-taking (implied honorability, “look at me, I’m a good white person”) and onto the successful, clearly qualified candidates they hired/admitted. While I am glad they acted on the “courage of their convictions,” the real story is that so many people of color are not considered for these roles because they are people of color. A couple of exceptions are lovely, but I would like to see those leaders institute mandatory anti-racism training for their staff and develop policy around hiring people of color. Those actions would have a more lasting impact.

    Liked by 1 person

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