Discriminating Leadership

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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