When the NBA and its players’ union recently agreed on a simple, yet effective set of actions to advance the cause of social justice and racial equality in America, they showed that, in the face of deeply painful systemic challenges, evolved leadership can make a difference. Political and business leaders should take notice. New episodes of violence and divisive rhetoric continue to tear at the frail scabs that cover the country’s racial wounds, feeding a malaise more profound than the unrest seen in Kenosha, Portland, Los Angeles and other cities.
Autocratic leadership, which shares a top-down mindset with the behaviors linked to racial violence, is fundamentally unsuited to address the current crisis. However, leadership that uses deep listening, authentic introspection and transformative empowerment, can make real progress. With the resolution offered last week, the NBA began to do exactly that.
Deep Listening Captures The Whole Meaning Of A Challenge
There is listening, and there is listening. A leader may pay attention to the recent civil unrest through the filter of their preconceived notions or focus more deeply on the meaning of what is happening on the streets of America today. For example, a CEO might conclude that a debate on social justice doesn’t belong in the workplace. Or, the leader of a political party might fixate on the clamors caused by a particular episode of disorderly conduct. Yet, a leader could also look at the current climate of unrest and realize that by witnessing several cases of racial violence, people have had a chance to observe a system fundamentally unwilling to change or self-correct.
The first type of listening is perfunctory and sterile. It may keep good trouble out of the workplace, but it will likely fail the dialogue with millennial and Gen Z employees. It may nab civil unrest, but it won’t heal the growing divide or the brokenness that’s leading some to take to the streets with rifles, in the name of self-defense, while others loot in the shadow of those who seek justice.
The second type of listening, however, can start a transformative process of problem-solving. The agreement reached by the NBA last week came out of a multitude of tense, emotional conversations. The players listened to each other, dialogued with the teams’ owners, and weighed in on the perspective of other stakeholders. Steve Ballmer, one of the NBA owners, described how part of this process entailed closely listening to the players while recognizing that people like him do not have the “lived experience of growing up Black in America.”
This was not about one side winning or getting their way over the other; it was about different parties working through the meaning of their unease and the conflicting priorities of their roles. It was this intense process that helped the NBA develop a better understanding of what could be done as well as a fuller sense of their collective responsibility as a powerful and influential organization of diverse stakeholders.
Authentic Introspection Enables Change
Though most people think they know their personal values, actual behavior is often inconsistent with the values people claim to hold. A leader may think that they value diversity but pay greater attention to the opinions of in-group members. Another may declare that they want people to speak out but feel threatened by the smallest signs of dissent. Sometimes, these gaps are disingenuous, but for the most part, they indicate a lack of self-awareness.
Failure to achieve a working understanding of one’s personal values has practical consequences, especially in the face conflicting goals and/or systemic challenges. In some cases, it may result in applying norms opportunistically and inconsistently, thereby increasing existing feelings of unfairness. In others, it may lead to discounting the importance of real priorities, which in turn prevents progress. And in more extreme situations, it may take a person in power to divorce their perceived competence from any sense of moral competence.
Thus, a leader might justify the unlawful use of force by a follower as a form of self-defense, while labeling peaceful protesters as rioters. He/she might conclude that sports ought to remain confined to a bubble of blissful ignorance where fans can forget the crude reality of particular facets of life. Or, he/she might engage in so biased a form of discounting to reject any factual evidence inconsistent with his/her self-image.
In all these instances, leadership shows a lack of ethical imagination. Thus, if presented with a paradox such as the one eloquently articulated by the coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, Doc Rivers,—why “… we are the ones getting killed; … we are the ones getting shot;…[yet], you keep hearing [the other side talking] about fear,” why “…we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back”—not only will the leader struggle to understand it, but he/she will find it impossible to navigate or ever possibly, attempt a solution.
Indeed, when it comes to personal values, self-awareness should not be mistaken for a rigid application of one’s standards. Instead, it should be used in the form of authentic introspection – a practice of regularly reflecting on what such values mean and what type of mature action they may require. As the NBA players debated whether they should cancel the playoffs, LeBron James, who had initially voted to end the season, reportedly pushed for finishing the game. James, who was criticized by some for his change of heart, responded by pointing out that at this very hour, justice needs action, not only talk.
Transformative Empowerment Creates A Path Forward
The platform the NBA and the NBPA agreed to includes a social justice coalition focused on facilitating access to voting, raising awareness and advocating for genuine reform. To this end, initiatives such as the conversion of arenas into polling locations and advertising spots in each NBA playoff game “dedicated to promoting greater civic engagement in national and local elections” will be actively pursued. The players and the owners did more than pledge to a vision. They also committed actual resources within their area of influence. In so doing, they empowered each other to re-imagine how valuable assets could be leveraged to make tangible progress toward the goal of social justice and racial equality.
It’s the generative aspect of this process that is most deserving of attention here. Turning a basketball court into a polling place and using a game not solely to entertain but to increase awareness that voting is a means to justice are the types of out-of-the-box thinking that can break the deadlock of the status quo. The most empowering aspect of the NBA standoff was not the mere fact that the players set an example for other athletes, but that the players, the owners and other stakeholders delivered a template of how resources and beliefs can be repurposed to make immediate and future progress.
In the words of John Lewis, one of the greatest heroes of the civil rights era, the NBA showed how “ordinary people with extraordinary vision…” can get in “… good trouble, necessary trouble,.. seeing something that is not right, saying something, and doing something”—helping to build “a nation and world society at peace with itself.”