Sincerely, Leaders of Color: Smart leaders put empathy and equity at the forefront of work

New frameworks for leaders must help them develop a more equitable mindset that shares power and accountability.

A quote from Irving Washington that says, "It's time to rethink everything we know about leadership today."

(Background photo by Elsa Gonzalez on Unsplash)

About this series: Sincerely, Leaders of Color is written for everyone in the journalism industry who cares about creating a more supportive environment for journalists of color to do their best work. Have a question for the team? Drop it here and watch for it in a future column. This column is proudly sponsored by the Executive Program and the Tow Knight Center at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, and our guest writers budget is sponsored by The American Press Institute.

I once attended an international executive leadership summit with more than one hundred CEOs from around the world. At the time, one organization stuck out as having a unique leadership structure: they had two co-CEOs. They were two women of color from the Global South.

It didn’t take long to observe that networking conversations for these two CEOs followed a pattern. When they introduced themselves and their shared leadership title, the other person would look intrigued and say “Oh, interesting” or raise an eyebrow and nod. The inevitable follow-up was some version of “Well, how does that work?” And if their explanation wasn’t satisfying, the other person would just flat out ask, “So who makes the final decisions then?”

I could tell the two CEOs were used to these conversations and the inevitable skeptics. They always stood back to allow the other person to express their opinion, only rarely sharing their own. I soon understood why. The conversation typically ended when the two co-CEOs would finally throw a question back: “Did you ever stop to think that our current work leadership structure was based on a cis white male supremacy culture that believes disagreements, and leadership, are resolved by wars and conquests?”

That question shut down rebuttals every time; no one knew why they held that leadership principle other than because it was the status quo.

To be honest, I hadn’t seriously thought about that question either. Leadership is so often thought of as a sub-discipline of your primary role that it’s easier to rely on a handful of principles that you rarely question, such as “a leader must be the one person who makes the final decision.” Executive bookshelves across the world are filled with leadership frameworks of Stephen Covey, Peter Drucker and Simon Sinek and they dare you to “be great” or “focus on your why.”

The danger in some of these principles is that they imply we as leaders are all the same. There is a blindness to anything that’s uncomfortable; whether that’s color or gender blindness. It’s not until recently, that we’ve begun to call out systemic inequities experienced by people from marginalized backgrounds.

It’s time to rethink everything we know about leadership today.

Rethink the social contract of work

Those idle few minutes at the start of Zoom meetings now start with, “Is your organization going back to the office?”—a convenient icebreaker when each organization and person has an opinion on virtual, in-person or hybrid work. This question is also discussed in leadership team meetings everywhere. But the question itself is binary and misses the larger disruptive call.

At the Online News Association, we’ve worked in a hybrid environment for the past decade. Our team of 12 went into the office two days a week, working from home the rest of the week. From the start, an obvious advantage of hybrid work was that it allowed our team to get work done on both collective and individual terms. Now, this didn’t come without challenges, but ultimately everyone who worked in that culture was happy to do so.

When I have shared the successes of our hybrid environment with large-staff CEOs, I’ve been met with the look parents reserve for a toddler who’s tried something new and proudly insists, “Look what I did.” That look was paired with comments on how that arrangement might work for a smaller org, but not a larger one. I resisted going back to those same CEOs with the irony in how quickly organizations of all sizes figured it out in 2020 when the pandemic hit.

Today’s back to the office conversation is missing the larger point. For centuries, we’ve grown to accept an implied social contract of work. In exchange for money, organizations can dictate when, where and how employees work for a specified time, and with the advancement of technology, that “available” time has almost become 24/7.

While anyone has the option to leave employers, the current employment social contract is the same across most industries.

It’s time to change this social contract.

This new social contract should be one that leads with an equitable mindset and shares power and accountability. The new social contract doesn’t allow organizations to hold all the power in exchange for money; instead, it leads with the mindset that each person that works for you is a shared partner in a larger mission. It leads with trust, autonomy and respect. To create a culture that embraces the uniqueness of individuals in order to accomplish shared goals, leaders must embrace this new social contract at work.

Collaborate with your teams to define your new social contract, then design where and how the work gets done.

Re-think feelings at work

Nearly two years later, I still reflect on some of the responses I received when I sent a simple “Are you OK?” note to ONA members shortly after the global shutdowns. For some, I was the first person to ask that question; they’d heard nothing from their leadership at work. Since then, a lot has been written about empathy being the top skill for leaders today. The pandemic, along with heightened conversations about race have forced even the most resistant leaders to see that the old notion of separating work and real-world conversations is no longer sustainable.

However, empathy is viewed primarily as a “nice to have” leadership trait that’s considered more bonus than requirement, along with competencies like emotional intelligence. We try to find any synonym we can, other than just saying “feelings,” a word likely to evoke visions of nightmarish work experiences.

But it’s time to re-think workplace views on feelings and embrace cultures that allow people to bring their feelings to work. And no, I didn’t say “bring your whole selves”; I mean “bring your actual feelings and all the good, bad and ugly things that come with it.” Inevitably, I’ll get a visceral negative reaction—some version of “Well, that just feels too complicated to manage as a leader.” Once again, I resist the urge to point out the irony of critiquing feelings with another feeling.

The reason this idea “feels” complicated is that it’s anchored in a debate happening in newsrooms right now over coverage: objectivity. We are taught that as a leader, I am able to view information and situations purely by the facts and my decision-making is objective. Objectivity means there are no parts of my identity or background that may play a role in my framework and the lens through which I view information.

But that is a false concept. Our backgrounds and experiences shape everything we do. They don’t have to drive our decisions, but they certainly play a part. The more leaders, from all backgrounds, can recognize their biases, power and privilege in themselves and others, the stronger trust they’ll create with their colleagues.

Leaders and organizations alike need to bring feelings to work. Am I allowed to say I’m not okay? Are the joys and sadness associated with my identity acceptable to talk openly about at work? Are the everyday struggles of being a human okay to talk about here?

Re-think everything else we’ve been told not to talk about at work

Recently, Robert Hernandez called for leaders to make room or move on as the industry aims to truly be reflective of our communities. It’s chock full of great advice on how leaders can make room to elevate their teams, and to do that, leaders need a workplace culture that embraces transitions and successions.

If someone wants to move on, is it even OK to share that within your organization? There are trillions of search results for “how to tell your boss you’re leaving,” and many posts prepare readers to handle negative reactions from their boss. In this moment of the Great Resignation, many people are anxious about telling their bosses they’re moving on. But why should it be uncomfortable to proactively talk about when it’s time to leave your job?

I’ve said to my team on numerous occasions, “If you work here, it’s because we believe in you and have invested in you as a person, not just as an employee.” Of course, my job as a leader is always to make sure your time working here adds value and growth to both you and the organization. When either of us feels that’s changed, we have an open invite to discuss. However, as an organization, we want to be invested in you for the long haul—whether that’s here or elsewhere.

Leaders have generally accepted fundamental leadership principles of what’s appropriate to talk about at work, but we’ve rarely asked why, such as:

  • Why can’t I talk to my boss about looking for a new job?
  • Why is it inappropriate to talk about salary at work?

And that brings me back to the incredible co-CEOs I met at that executive summit all those years ago. When I reflected on what other leaders said would be challenging about having two co-CEOs, it boiled down to one thing: it felt too hard. No one questioned that it could be done, but simply, that it appeared to be hard.

However, in a moment where journalism is focused on business sustainability, many leaders are excited to tackle that challenge despite how hard it is. Yet many of those same leaders shrug their shoulders about re-thinking and transforming newsroom leadership and culture. There’s been a false choice between investing time, money and innovation in business sustainability or investing that in people.

I reject that choice. We can and must do both.

The older frameworks of leadership placed all the power in the hands of the leader. Today’s frameworks must turn that power into a partnership if we want to attract and retain journalists of color at all levels. If not, we may end up financially sustaining journalism, only to not have anyone tell the stories that need to be told.

Irving Washington
Executive Director/CEO
Online News Association

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This is a guest column, solicited by P. Kim Bui and Emma Carew Grovum and edited by Kim. We want to make sure to include voices from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences. If you’re interested in guest writing, or have someone you’d love to hear from, let us know here.

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  • Irving Washington

    Irving Washington is executive director and CEO of the Online News Association (ONA), one of the world’s largest membership organizations of digital journalists. As a vocal media diversity advocate, he has launched and led several initiatives supporting women, journalists of color, and students worldwide. He is also co-founder of Texts to Table, a community forum uplifting stories about race and leadership from the Black experience. Before ONA, he held leadership roles at the National Association of Black Journalists and the Radio Television Digital News Foundation.


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