Leaders must own the past and push for the future

Many can lead when times are good. The challenges of the past year separate leaders and managers. In a recent interview at Vanderbilt, Steven Reed (MBA’04), the Mayor of Montgomery, Alabama, argued that managers can keep the status quo, but leaders are needed to drive change – a necessity when times are tough. As Montgomery’s first Black Mayor, Reed knew that his leadership would be tested. Years of experience managing businesses would help him push initiatives forward and win the confidence of the business community. But the rapidly evolving crises in the arenas of public health, economy, and social justice would demand much more. Mayor Reed noted that during unprecedented times of change, leaders must remember their core values and take responsibility for their decisions, no matter the consequences. He explained that leaders should focus on facts, data, and the impact of their decisions, but they also need empathy to successfully navigate change.

Such skills are particularly important in leading organizations to become more inclusive. Generations of racial, gender, and social inequality set the stage for the summer of unrest we witnessed this year. Leaders who seek to help their organizations become more diverse and inclusive, must embrace the uncomfortable. They can’t ignore the past; they must honestly address it. Mayor Reed urged leaders to allow people in the organization the space needed to express themselves. Thoughtful conversations lead to learning and growing. Everyone must acknowledge that there may be ignorance about race and not overreact to everything that is said ­– simply have the conversation. Only then can we chart a path forward. Reed explained that the more honest we are about our past – the good and bad – the better we can learn from it and move forward.

Finally, leaders must take action that reflects the words. Progress is moving, and it requires action. Mayor Reed noted that moving forward doesn’t mean you won’t get knocked down or take a step back. In spite of these potential setbacks, he argued that you have to embrace any progress toward diversity and inclusion. The progress around you may seem small, but even small steps are steps forward. Leaders need to have patience and resilience to see real progress.

To hear more from my interview with Mayor Reed, watch the video below. He discusses his career journey and the challenges of managing through a crisis. He summarizes his thoughts on racial reconciliation with a call for leaders to embrace the uncomfortable; embrace the unknown; and be willing to make progress out of that, knowing that progress is never perfect.

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