As a result of my ongoing work as founder and executive director of Music For Everyone, I have been thinking more critically about leadership, particularly as it applies to volunteerism and community service. Specifically, how to inspire others to take those first steps to follow their passions and in the process, change the world. Or, if not the world, maybe their city, neighborhood, or block. Those thought processes have led me to begin to write about leadership, drawing upon not only my MFE experiences but also lessons learned from my parents and family, on basketball teams, and in blues bands.
One of the most fundamental lessons I am learning is that effective leaders understand the value of putting together a diverse team. And that includes a few disruptors. They understand that diversity equals strength, is a sign of maturity, and presents tremendous opportunity.
Whether as an individual, business, or CBO, it is important to periodically take an unvarnished, honest look in the mirror. Such honest self-reflection can reveal uncomfortable truths about yourself or your organization. We do not do that often enough. It can be quite painful when, after such honest self-examination, you find you might not be living up to the standards and ideals you profess to believe in and act upon. Throughout the process of researching and writing this book, I have experienced those feelings, both personally and through MFE organizationally.
For example, after the George Floyd murder in 2020, we began a 360-degree review of our policies, procedures, and bylaws seeking to identify criteria and goals for strategically diversifying the organization. There is no question that these measures have made us a much better organization. But the fact is, we should have made these efforts long ago. While we have had POC on our board, we were not directional and strategic regarding our diversity efforts and how that diversity could be leveraged to effectively advance our mission. Why didn’t we? In a word, we (particularly me as executive director) were, quite frankly, lazy. I take full responsibility for that.
This is what I mean by lazy. Most children and families we serve are of color. While we may not have consciously thought this, I’ve come to realize that, subconsciously, we were using that as an excuse not to feel any sense of urgency to become more diverse organizationally. We used the makeup of our constituency as a “free pass” on having to make a serious, top to bottom commitment to diversity. After much reflection, self-assessment, and critique, we have come to realize that precisely because we serve primarily children and families of color, our organization should reflect that diversity. By not doing so, we were underperforming because we didn’t fully leverage our resources to best serve our main constituents and fundamental mission. This was a painful realization. How could we think we were serving a particular group to the best of the organization’s ability if we did not have organizational representation of that group? How can an overwhelmingly white organization think they are most effectively serving a population consisting largely of POC without a strong presence of POC throughout the organization? While we are proud of the work we have done, I lament the fact that we could have done more and done it more effectively had we been a more aware and diverse organization.
It’s like a tasty Louisiana gumbo. You are not going to create a good, thick, spicy gumbo using only two ingredients. Gumbo requires many spices complimenting each other and coming together to create a great taste. Like gumbo, a diverse population (“spices”) added to the mix makes an organization, business, team, band, or community stronger and more effective.
That said, it’s not enough to acknowledge the need to become more diverse. That is but the first step. Once acknowledged, the next step is to follow through with intentional and direct actions to achieve diversity. Becoming more diverse as an organization is not simply about adding a few POC to the board. Rather, it is evaluating all aspects of your programs, services, and structures from top to bottom. While the change will not occur overnight, the fact is, it won’t occur unless you, as an individual or as an organization, take directed, strategic actions, big and small, to embrace and leverage diversity and, as a result, become more effective in meeting your mission.
While we still have much more work to do, the greatest lesson we have learned because of our 360-degree reassessment is that commitment to meaningful; genuine DEI is not about “charity” or burnishing public perception and reputation. It is about business and organizational effectiveness. In other words, it’s not simply about doing the right thing. It’s also about business and doing the smart thing.
As for the disruptors? As a leader, you don’t want all “Yes” men or women. You want some people who will, when necessary, push back and challenge you. Being challenged is of tremendous value to a leader because it forces you to sharpen, rethink, or even change your line of thinking and reasoning. And sometimes, that lone voice of dissent might end up saving your organization from heading down the wrong path. Effective leaders understand that they are not infallible. They understand that they have blind spots. Having people on your team who are not afraid to raise questions is a sign of leadership strength, not weakness.
Like it or not, our world is becoming more diverse. You can fight that or embrace it. But make no mistake, it’s happening, and as individuals, businesses, or organizations, you will eventually pay the price for ignoring or denying it.