Last week, I watched two speeches by two very senior leaders. In both cases, I found myself watching every fibre of their beings, with every fibre of mine.
I was watching for honesty, and the vulnerability that comes with it. I could hear all the words, but I was watching their faces, looking for a flicker of acknowledgement that the perfectly crafted words were, or weren’t, true.
I wanted to believe and be inspired, but I knew them both too well.
This is a tale of two very different leaders.
The First Leader
I found no honesty. No vulnerability. No flicker.
Just a poised faultless face delivering an overly practiced and overly edited word-perfect speech.
This woman’s speech was on diversity.
This is a woman who’s own team is simply not diverse.
No people of different races. No people with a disability. No flexible work or part-timers. No people over 45 (except the woman herself). No people under 35.
This is a woman who has watched her henchmen/henchwomen systemically sideline, or even dismiss, countless pregnant women.
This is a woman whom I’m sure is frustrated to have mortality restrict her working week to 24/7. If you could send emails and texts to her team on the eighth day in the twenty fifth hour, she’d happily do that too. She’s quite famous for this way of working.
So, I’m left wondering, why would she want to speak on diversity?
She could comfortably speak on performance. She could speak on intensity. She could speak on planning. She could speak on presence. She would be authentic on every one of these topics.
Why on earth did she want to speak on diversity?
As she spoke, was she not worried that one of those pregnant women would be in the audience, and call her out?
Would someone with a disability ask why they couldn’t get into her team?
Was she worried that someone would ask for genuine examples of flexibility on her watch? Would an older ex-employee leap up and challenge her attitude to age?
I watched her face for that fear as she spoke. And it simply wasn’t there.
I started looking around the room.
This woman has led in this very un-diverse way for so long, across multiple organisations, that surely there would be many in the room who had worked on her watch, or knew of her ways. It was a big room.
Sure enough, I saw a man who had ‘retired early’ so she could bring in someone young. I saw a woman who had lost her job at 8 months pregnant. Another who was made redundant during Maternity Leave.
I started watching their faces.
As she reeled off the platitudes and perfectly crafted rhetoric about her phenomenal support for diversity, their eyes flicked down or their faces flinched. Were they still embarrassed? Were they still hurting? I wasn’t sure.
But they sat still. Glued to their seats. Silent.
My frustration at the hypocrisy faded gradually over the hour.
I tried to think in the shoes of the woman on stage. I started to think about the truth.
Even if she could hold her face and feign confidence that no one would call her out, she could not escape the truth. When she stepped off that stage, she would only be applauded by those who didn’t know the truth. She would only be approached by people who were impressed by words.
The Second Leader
The second leader’s speech was also on diversity. It wasn’t meant to be. It was meant to be on Talent, but she naturally took the opportunity to talk about broadening opportunities for everyone.
It wasn’t as letter-prefect as the first. A little more raw. Less practice? No speech writer? I wondered.
There were many ‘flickers’. If I hadn’t known her and her work, and this speech was all I had to base my judgement on, I’d have thought she was full of doubt.
I found myself wondering why. She was well known for her lifelong support of diversity. For including, sponsoring, for lifting up people not like her.
There were so many stories of people she had mentored and played an active role in making sure they had wonderful opportunities. Her voice on gender was broad, and resonated over many years. She was not only a role model across her own aspects of diversity, but across aspects unrelated to her own experience of life.
Again, I found myself looking across the room. Someone in this big crowd must have worked with this woman, or heard of her work. Sure enough, I could see them. The woman sitting up straight, and nodding to every point. I remembered the time this senior woman had called and spoken of this woman. A real star, who’s career was shipwrecked during her second pregnancy. The speaker had asked for my help, (and probably the help of many others) to get her back on track. Apparently, she was. Good to see her smiling and looking proud and confident.
I saw another guy beaming up at the speaker too. I knew his story too. Desperate to make a career change into a field he was passionate about, but blocked at every turn. I knew his opportunity came from this speaker, taking him into her team and supporting his development for a few months. From there, he’d flown.
There was more. Many more. Both personally impacted, and aware of the stories.
At the end of the speech, there was time for questions. Lots of questions. And her responses were the answer to my question about her doubts. There was no arrogance or reeling off pre-prepared tick box solutions to complicated problems. Instead, there was declarations of ‘still a long way to go’ and ‘we have to get smarter at that’. Even questions back “I’m not sure. Do you have any examples of that being done well?”.
And finally, lots of applause and a rush to queue to speak to her.
A Tale of Two Leaders
And that’s the story of two leaders.
They espouse the same messages, but one is living the story and the other has veneered over behaviour that belies every word.
Does it make me angry or cynical? Nope.
There’s a far greater reward for leading inclusively than applause, and only one of them would ever feel it.
For the other there would be no wonderful memory of the person she had sponsored, who took every opportunity from then on.
There would be no invitations to a glass of wine from someone she’d mentored years ago, who just wanted to catch up and say thank you.
There would be no incredibly creative ideas from her team that she had led in a way so that everyone was confident to bring out their best ideas and challenge each other.
There would be no cards, with caring words from a person for whom she’d bent the rules just a little to allow them to care for their parents or a sick child.
No person with a disability looking her way as they made their speech about being a role model for others.
So, as you step onto a stage, to speak with authority on diversity, or any other topic, make sure you deeply understand the words you’re speaking. Make sure you are who you say you are, because everyone else has already seen your actions. They know your story, your way of coming at the world. They’ll listen politely to your words, but they see your truth.
And somewhere deep inside, you do too.