Discriminating Leadership

by  Deb Costello  |  Leadership Development

Imagine for a minute you are meeting someone new. You get together for coffee and start to talk, to learn about each other, to share personal information. You reveal something important about yourself, thinking it will help your new friend understand you better.

You say, I am a Christian, a republican, a veteran, a doctor, a father, or an American. Your new friend responds, “I don’t care. Whatever.” This statement probably means that your revelation changes nothing about how your new friend feels about you, but it still stings a little, and you find yourself wondering if it changes how you feel about her.

I have been thinking about this response in the wake of Anderson Cooper’s recent decision to reveal that he is gay. He is not the first, nor will he be the last well-known individual to do so. But what struck me was that so many of my good-hearted friends and neighbors had the same reaction. “I can’t wait for the day when this is not even news, when this doesn’t matter.” I know what they mean. They want sexuality to cease to be a singular yardstick by which people are measured. They want discrimination against homosexuals, in fact all discrimination, to finally end.

But discrimination does not just end by itself. Women still make less than men for the same work. Blacks still experience racial slurs and hate speech. Bullying still happens. We can neither legislate nor ignore discrimination away. People are persecuted every day for their religion, race, gender, political beliefs, for their weight, intelligence, hair-color, disabilities, and yes, for being gay. We’ve been working on this tolerance thing for a long time and although things are better, plenty of haters in the world still try to lift themselves up by putting others down. As a result, sexuality matters. So does religion and race and hair-color and all of the differences and diversity that make us individually unique. If we really want discrimination to stop, we have to keep fighting. We have to care, because who we are matters.

As leaders in our communities, we have a responsibility to break down discrimination and dispel hatred. We also have this incredible opportunity to understand and empower those around us. I think we can do all of these things at the same time. People really just want to be seen. When our friends and colleagues feel that we truly see them, deeply know them, they grow and contribute more to their communities. They gain strength and confidence and become leaders themselves. Our abilities to connect, to show empathy, and to demonstrate compassion are vital to effective leadership. Every time we dismiss something that is significant in others, when we choose not to see people fully, we erase a piece of them. This devaluation weakens our teams and communities.

Instead we must care about each other wholly and completely. We need to ask questions, show support, be present, and listen, really, really listen to a person’s story. That is not to say we must love every part of a person equally. Our world is full of beautifully diverse and complicated individuals. We agree with and support parts of everyone we know. We disagree with other pieces and spend time trying to understand new perspectives and explain our own. Either way, the common denominator is the same, caring.

The cure for discrimination is not apathy. “I don’t care. Whatever.” can’t be the response to personal revelation. Instead we must reply in ways that lift up and demonstrate understanding. Maybe our answer can be as simple as “OK,” or “Thank you for letting me to know you more completely.” In essence we need to say, “I see you…all of you.”

It is by caring for each other deeply and compassionately that we will move toward peace and equality, toward better communities. When we can share ourselves with each other fearlessly and completely, discrimination will finally end. And Anderson Cooper’s sexuality will no longer be headline news.

Perhaps you have personal experiences to share or suggestions for ways to address discrimination more effectively. I welcome your comments.

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What People Are Saying

Georgia Feiste  |  09 Jul 2012  |  Reply

Deborah – Thank you for your article. Being the mom of a young man who is traveling a difficult path, I appreciate your thoughts about the need for standing up and “caring”. It’s important to me that everyone care immensely. My son is dealing with Retinitis Pigmentosa, an eye disease that has left him legally blind at the age of 28 (and ultimately fully blind in just a few years). He is also bipolar, and with medication is working successfully at a very responsible job. And, finally, he is gay. He has been out for 17 years – since he was 13.

It’s important to recognize that all three of those things he deals with on a daily basis were gifts from the Universe – whatever name you choose to give to God. I cannot be apathetic about the need for acceptance as I interact with him, and watch how people react, and listen to our political and cultural rhetoric of defense and hate.

My favorite greeting for everyone I meet is Namaste – which for me means “I see the God light within you”.



Deborah Costello  |  09 Jul 2012  |  Reply

Thank you Georgia for your comments here. You son is indeed traveling a difficult path. I have no doubt that he has experienced every form of human interaction along the way and has built around him a community of friends and family that not only tolerate him, but actively support him in his endeavors and as the person he is ever becoming. I cannot imagine what difficulties he has faced thus far in his life, but I imagine that those of the human variety were far more frustrating and completely unnecessary.

I will continue this fight for as long as it takes and appreciate the fact that I do not stand alone.

Namaste to you friend.


Jon Mertz  |  09 Jul 2012  |  Reply

Very insightful, Deborah. Thank you for leading this change in our communities. Your point is vital: “It is by caring for each other deeply and compassionately that we will move toward peace and equality, toward better communities.” Let’s make our communities better! Jon

Deborah Costello  |  09 Jul 2012  |  Reply

Thank you Jon for your support. I am thrilled to be a part of LeadChange, a community that actively encourages the development of positive, character-based leaders. The compassion of such leaders is vital in our diverse and complex world. I love that we can discuss issues of leadership across a spectrum of interests in a civil and respectful way. This group’s commitment brings me back again and again.


Robbie  |  10 Jul 2012  |  Reply

Great post, Deb (the title alone is giving me much food for thought!). Many times, our lack of compassion and empathy comes from the rush and pressure of our busy lives–we so often have our minds fixed on the 101 things that we have to get done, whereas reaching out “to connect, to show empathy, and to demonstrate compassion” takes time and energy, so that we miss out on so many opportunities . . . often without even realizing that those opportunities have slipped us by. It is when I am making the effort to slow the day down–consciously working to live in the moment–that I have the best success at recognizing and lifting up those around me.

Deborah Costello  |  10 Jul 2012  |  Reply

This is so true Robbie. The speed of life is truly breathtaking at times. Many days I have looked up from my desk at 5:00 and said, where did this day go? In a job such as ours, I think our ability to show empathy and compassion is vitally important. Our contact is primarily with youth and they are forming their own ideas about how the world works and how they want to interact in it and with each other. But whether interactions are with teens or adults, our ability to demonstrate the exact thought processes and behaviors we hope for is a key to creating lasting change in our communities.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Jane Perdue  |  10 Jul 2012  |  Reply

Deb – great message of tolerance, flexibility and compassion…three much needed attributes. While others may not think or believe the same as we do, that makes no one right or wrong. Marginalizing their position benefits no one and simply creates more polarization, gridlock, stereotypes, and bias. Love how you are addressing the elephants in the room!

Deborah Costello  |  10 Jul 2012  |  Reply

Thank you Jane,

The thing about elephants is they’re so big that there’s not much room for anything else.

Thank you for your continued support. I often wonder if people have the ability to disagree without anger, to not just tolerate those that think or act differently, but to actually embrace them BECAUSE they think or act differently. Is there value in surrounding ourselves with those that are different or are we only happy in a room of like-minded folks??

Hope you are well Jane.


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