When Nona Jones started speaking about racial injustice at the 2020 Global Leadership Summit, she said she knew some people may tune her out. But, she promised to take the conversation somewhere we likely haven’t been over these last several weeks of tension. True to her word, Jones skillfully delivered a very timely and helpful message on how leaders can approach this moment in our culture with courage—even if they don’t have all the answers.
Jones, the Head of Faith-Based Partnerships at Facebook, said when she heard about the death of George Floyd and saw the conversations his death sparked on social media, she was hopeful that our culture would finally have “the necessary, difficult conversation about racism in America.”
The Uncomfortable Conversation Is Uncomfortable for a Reason
However, as she witnessed leaders with platforms and influence reach out to their African American friends for discussion, her hope began to fade. She realized that these conversations weren’t doing much because they were speaking abstractly and hypothetically. These uncomfortable conversations were taking place inside the comfort of friendship. Oftentimes, the African American was trying not to make the other person, their friend, feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Jones knew these conversations wouldn’t create lasting impact. “You cannot make an impact while you are comfortable,” she explained.
Jones emphasized these conversations on racial injustice are uncomfortable for both the victim of the injustice and also the one who benefits from the injustice. Without accusation, Jones said one of the roadblocks she believes is keeping us from moving forward on the issue of racial injustice is that many who benefit from the injustice didn’t have anything to do with designing the injustice and therefore don’t want to confront it. “We can be not racist while still benefiting from racism,” she explained.
As difficult as this cultural moment is, though, Jones says leaders must resist the temptation to stay in a safe space. “Safe is insufficient” right now, Jones said. If leaders “see difficulty ahead, but we retreat back to the places that make us feel safe, we risk abandoning the very challenge that is necessary for our next level of leadership.”
Psychological Safe Zones
When the conversations about race started happening this year, Jones says she saw leaders retreat into one of two “psychological safe zones”: fear and inadequacy.
Fear – “When fear knocks on our door, there is something hanging in the balance that we could potentially lose.” Jones said that some leaders shared with her why they didn’t speak out forcefully about racial injustice. Many of them said “I just have too much to lose…if I say the wrong thing.” Jones said the real fear that underlies this thought is: If we lose our customers or followers, what would that make us? But a leader’s job is not to ignore or deny fear. “Fear is real. Our job is to explore what fear is trying to teach us,” Jones said. She compared fear to a thermometer that tells us that there is something that we value that we risk losing. When you see yourself retreating into fear, Jones instructed, see the fear as an invitation to preparation. This advice can apply to any difficulty you face as a leader, not just racial injustice.
Inadequacy – Sometimes when challenges come our way, leaders feel we are incapable of fixing the problem. Inadequacy stems from believing “If I don’t have all power, I have no power.” A major problem that arises from inadequacy is that “it causes you to believe the lie that someone else is better equipped to do what you were assigned to do.” The antidote is to determine what you can change and change it. So often people feel like they can’t change the world, so what’s the use of trying? Jones says, we are called to change the part of the world that our influence touches. Whatever degree of power we have, that’s the degree we need to contribute. “You don’t have to have all power; you just have to recognize the power that you have and apply it to that situation to increase the probability that you will make an impact.”
Jones concluded her message by talking about the power of a “pack” of people who can spur you on to your greatest potential. In Genesis 2:18, God tells us “It is not good for man to be alone.” Jones, who is also an ordained minister, explained that the word “good” in this passage actually means best. What God was trying to say here has implications for leadership. We can’t be at our best if we’re alone.
When circumstances are difficult, challenges seem insurmountable, we’ll often retreat into isolation. We will hide. But, as Jones said, we are created to be in community with other people. This is why Jones advised building a pack of people who can walk through life with you. “You have to build your pack in order to build your power,” she said. She challenged the audience to identify three names that they can invite to be in their pack to encourage them when things get difficult. Choosing these people should be a careful, thoughtful process: You don’t need someone to speak to the lowest common denominator of your potential; you need someone to speak to the highest possible potential for you.
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