So by now you have most likely heard the story of Rachel Dolezal, the former head of The NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington. Dolezal was born white but started telling people she was a black woman over the past few years. At the time of this writing, she has appeared on national television and is in talks to have her own reality show. We can debate ad nauseam the ramifications of her actions, but there are certain aspects of this controversy that you as a leader must pay attention to. If you miss the key teachable moments from this story, you can hurt yourself in the future.
Teachable Moment #1: Be honest to yourself first and foremost
Dolezal apparently told her brother to not blow her cover as her appearance started to change over the years. A statement like this shows a clear aspect of deception on her part. As a leader, you have to come to terms with your identity before you engage the masses for two reasons: 1) You will have more clarity of mind, which is crucial for a leader; and 2) You won’t have to worry about being exposed as a fraud and losing credibility to the people that mattered most—your original constituency. As the African proverb goes, “When you tell the truth, you don’t need a good memory.” Be honest now to save yourself from unnecessary drama later.
Teachable Moment #2: Your diversity is an asset so don’t try to blend in
I work in the area of social justice. On a daily basis, I work to end serious issues like child trafficking, slavery, homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and more. In this work, I have met people of all races and backgrounds all dedicated to a common cause. The leaders who were the most ineffective were the ones who believe they have to shun who they are in order to better contribute to a movement. I am reminded of a recent example of Ben Affleck who tried to hide a story about his ancestors possibly owning slaves. Everyone knows that Affleck is a humanitarian and committed to human rights so why does he need to hide “his” history? If anything, his story shows that we do not have to inherit the prejudices of our ancestors. It’s a story to be told! We’re stronger as a community when we embrace our background and use it as a place of reference, not residence.
Teachable Moment #3: Do you want to be Kim Kardashian or a Dr. King?
Wow, tough comparison right? Both are public figures right? Both are talked about throughout the world right? The question becomes: what are people saying when they talk about Kardashian and King? Note: I am not judging or condemning Kardashian. I’m just using her story for comparison purposes. Dr. King’s claim to fame despite any flaws he had was being a servant to humanity. Kardashian will be remembered by many as someone who rose to fame from her recorded sexual encounter with singer Ray-J. Decades from now as we ignore more and more history, Kardashian may be remembered as a great humanitarian on her chosen causes. After all, there are many illegal and nefarious activities behind some of the greatest names and corporations in history but we have selective memories right? Dolezal is about to cash in with reality shows and book deals not based on her commendable work as a civil rights leader, but as someone who turned out to be a fraud. What do you want to be remembered for? A leader is only as good as her legacy.
At the end of the day, you have to decide what type of leader you want to be. We live in a pop-culture world that celebrates the worst of us. Don’t be so hungry for fame and exposure that you’re willing to sell your soul to the highest bidder. Don’t compromise your integrity for a paycheck. You may argue that Kim Kardashian is ultra-rich and can do whatever she wants right now. Yes, that is true. There is great benefit to having wealth but I believe there is a greater benefit to service to others, especially public service if you are a leader. Be honest with yourself, respect the diversity you bring to the table, and do your best to choose a positive legacy to be remembered for despite what others may say about you. The rise, fall, and rise again of Rachel Dolezal is a cautionary story for us all, but only if you read the story!