What Is Woke Leadership?

Women sitting at work meeting
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the idea of “woke” leadership. The word “woke” has become prominent in the current cultural zeitgeist, and came to the forefront through recent movements to bring about sexual, lifestyle, and racial justice.
To be clear, the term “woke” is provocative and has hints of elitism because it insinuates that some people have a higher degree of consciousness or intellectual depth about the world around them.
“Woke” is a political term of African-American origin that I first learned about when I read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. The book itself is a wakeup call for racial justice, and after reading it you too will be “woke.” Or at least I felt woke to racial injustices I formally ignored, minimized, or unconsciously or implicitly contributed to. To be clear, the term “woke” is provocative and has hints of elitism because it insinuates that some people have a higher degree of consciousness or intellectual depth about the world around them. They see the matrix while everyone else is blind to it. But if we allow ourselves to consider the word more plainly in its relation to our own individual experience, it takes on a different significance.
My wokeness is personal, and being woke doesn’t mean I’m better than those who haven’t had my experience.
For example, most of my life I didn’t really see or take an interest in people with special needs. I’m embarrassed to say that, but I know it’s true. All that changed, however, when my daughter was born with cerebral palsy and deafness. Then I became “woke” to the needs and challenges of the disabled community. Two employees talking at conference table My wokeness is personal, and being woke doesn’t mean I’m better than those who haven’t had my experience. It does mean, however, that I have a certain obligation to share my conversion experience from an unengaged bystander to an engaged advocate of the disabled community.  

Wokeness Is a Journey

One team I previously worked with was tasked with exploring issues related to diversity in their workplace. The team worked for a large construction company and was struggling to identify qualified women and underrepresented minority candidates to fill construction management roles. While there were two women already on the team, the other four team members were white males. Throughout the course of their year-long evaluation of diversity issues, the team had many arguments about “entitlements” and “tokenism” and “merit.” Slowly, through a lot of touchtone honesty and hard conversations, the men came to realize that although they believed in diversity at an intellectual level, at a deeper level they felt threatened. They felt if they embraced diversity too much that they were somehow conceding that their own achievements were not fully based on merit alone or that their achievements were not fully of their own making.
As it relates to leadership, being woke means first to actively strive to illuminate your blind spots so you can mitigate whatever damage they may be causing, and thus lead in a healthier, more effective, and more enjoyable way.
The end result was a team that had gone on its own journey to wokeness, involving a serious and sober exploration of implicit bias and its negative consequences.   Similarly, I once worked with a command and control leader who dominated everyone around him. The dude got results, but often created a boatload of wreckage in his wake. Then he went through a 360-degree feedback process whereby his boss, peers, and direct reports gave him anonymous feedback about his leadership style and approach. He read words like “harsh,” “hot-head,” and “obnoxious.” Seeing the unassailable data and evidence laid out in front of him left him nowhere to hide. He went from assuming that he was a great and dominant leader to becoming starkly aware of what a jerk he had become. He was stung into wokeness, which proved to be just the impetus he needed to make many positive changes in his style and approach. He was no longer blind to himself.   Woman leader talking to employees As it relates to leadership, being woke means first to actively strive to illuminate your blind spots so you can mitigate whatever damage they may be causing, and thus lead in a healthier, more effective, and more enjoyable way. It means recognizing that you need followers more than they need you, because engaged and skilled followers get superior results. Being woke means focusing on bettering their lives and careers through your service to them. In other words, being woke means understanding leadership has never been about the leader—it’s about those being led. It’s not about you.

Woke Up People!

When I boil down what it means to be a woke leader, these are the characteristics that come to mind:
  • You care about others and want to help them succeed.
  • You start by presuming that others have good intent and aren’t out to get you or undermine your leadership.
  • You’re comfortable in your own skin and are keenly aware of your imperfections.
  • You place a high value on courage and refuse to turn away from challenging people or situations.
  • You seek to bring those with different perspectives closer and you embrace and value diversity.
  • You sidestep drama and act before the chaos.
  • You’re fully committed to creating a just, equitable, and humane world.
What comes to YOUR mind when you think about being a woke leader?
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About Bill Treasurer

Bill Treasurer is the author of The Leadership Killer, Reclaiming Humility in an Age of Arrogance, which he co-wrote with Captain John “Coach” Havlik, Navy SEAL (Retired). For the last two decades, Treasurer has worked with thousands of leader across the globe, at such organizations as NASA, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lenovo, UBS Bank, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Learn more at: www.LeadershipKiller.com.

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