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Practices – Persistence – Evolution

| July 7, 2020

by Sean McDonald

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Sean McDonald, Vice-President of MOR Associates with contributions from Firmin Charlot, Identity Management Officer, and Nicholas Oas, Head of Security Operation, both at Michigan State University. They may be reached at [email protected], [email protected], or [email protected].]
Over the course of the past six weeks I have consumed numerous resources and talked to hundreds of people about the social injustice and systematic racism that exists in this country.  Though the words “we’ve been here before” ring loud and clear, so too does the belief that “this time feels different.” The ultimate measure will be our actions.  How can each of us, you and I, move the dial on something as complicated as systematic racism? I have been spending a lot of time thinking about that and thankful to be in this journey with the great team at MOR (see June 9 Tuesday Reading).  As I think about what each of us can do, I draw inspiration from an experience with Firmin (Firm) Charlot and Nicholas Oas, who I met during a MOR Leaders Program at Michigan State University.
During that program, Firm shared with his cohort an observation he called out two years prior about the use of language in IT that linked negativity to blackness and positivity to whiteness. The specific example he used were the words “Blacklist” and “Whitelist” which were widely used and accepted in allowing network traffic, email, and more to either have access, or to not have access.  Something was denied access by virtue of being on the “Blacklist,” and was permitted if on the “Whitelist.”
Firm helped bring awareness of this to others as well.  As those of you who are MOR alums know, a tremendous amount of trust gets built in MOR program experiences.  Leadership communities get formed and can play a key part in generating awareness and leading change together.  Getting to know Firm through this community, the great guy he is, and my respect for him, certainly aided my openness to any perspective he shared. It did as well for Nicholas.  Nicholas had the ability to change the configuration behind the scenes in the firewall, so he made the name change to call them the “Allow list” and “Block list” which Firm recommended, as they were more specific and accurate.
This is a simple story, one of many that happen in the course of a ten-month MOR program, but at this moment in time it stands out as inspiring as well.  At MOR we talk about leading change not as an event, but as ongoing evolution.  As we consider that ongoing evolution, there are many leadership lessons we can learn from Firm and his effort to lead change:

  • Practice Awareness – Our brains are built to embrace routines.  Our days our made up of hundreds of routines and habits.  Our organizational cultures are made up of the collection of many norms and traditions that have sometimes been in place for decades. The momentum of continuing tomorrow what was yesterday is extraordinarily strong.  To counter this, we need new practices that carve out space to practice awareness, to think and reflect.  We need new processes in our thinking that challenge our thoughts and challenge those things we hear repeatedly. The Ladder of Inference is a great tool to help us challenge our own assumptions.  Just because something was viewed as acceptable in the past doesn’t mean that it is acceptable today.  Our awareness becomes more refined over time.  Firm’s awareness brought to attention that these terms were not acceptable.
  • Practice Courage – Another competency that leaders need to practice is courage.  It is easy to accept what has been accepted.  To be the first one to speak up against something is challenging to say the least.  Courage also involves the persistence to continue to speak up against something until it is changed.  Sometimes courage can feel like a never-ending struggle, ranging from feelings of slow progress, to feeling ignored, to even feeling stigmatized for standing up what you believe in.  Sometimes we may not even fully aware of the impact we have on others.  There may be people who are listening and who are taking action in silence to make a better tomorrow.  This was a lesson Firm learned after he heard of Nicholas’ action.  Courage of conviction, confidence, and persistence to stay the course are what result in positive action. 
  • Engage Others – Change in organizations, by its very nature, involves others.  There is an important element of engaging others, building the coalition of the willing. This involves discussion, listening, adapting influence styles, communication, being aware of the political landscape, and understanding the culture. It is as true here, with Firm and Nicholas’ story, as it was true in last week’s Tuesday Reading on Revolutionary Relationships.
  • Stay Open – I often recommend Carol Dweck’s work on mindset to incoming participants of a MOR program. The premise is, with a growth (open) mindset you see who you are as relatively adaptable, as someone who can continue to change and grow over time.  Add to this the great reminder in the book White Fragility that “a strong opinion is not the same as informed knowledge”.  These combined insights lead us to the idea that openness should also be proactive; we should constantly be seeking to learn, be informed, and understand more. (by the way, thank you to my friend and colleague Shawn Harris for recommending that book!)

We can’t let huge complexity stop us from taking action.  We should start small if needed, but the key is to start.  Take the initiative.  How you take action matters, so spend time thinking about how you will step forward, but step forward none-the-less.  Practice awareness and courage in understanding how you can step forward.  As our friends at the Department of Homeland Security and TSA say: “if you see something, say something.”  We need to lead from where we are. When thinking about any daunting task, like taking on systemic racism, the ancient Chinese proverb comes to mind about eating an elephant: “How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.”  Even daunting and seemingly overwhelming things can be accomplished, but we must take them one piece at a time.

It had been awhile since I connected with Firm and Nicholas.  But the lessons from this story ingrain for me popped up a few months ago, where a program participant was telling a story and mentioned a “white knight on a white horse.”  I interrupted mid-story to say “why does the knight and horse have to be white?”  I got at least one thumbs up in the Zoom screen.  More recently, as I wondered what else I could do so that “this time feels different” comes true, Firm and Nicholas came to mind.  So I reached back out to them about this story in order to share it with you all today.  One small way we can make change happen.  Small steps, staying aware of the things in our reach that we can impact.  Our actions, our norms, our words.
As one final lesson to this story, evolution takes time and persistence.  I met Firm and Nicholas in 2013.  It was 2011 when Firm first mentioned his awareness of names of those lists and suggested a language change.  Though they have made much progress in this area, much like the nuance of culture and norms, the nuance of technical code and programming within our infrastructures is many layers deep.  Only a few short weeks ago – almost 10 years since Firm’s first mention of this, Nicholas still found an instance of “whitelist” in the infrastructure configuration (which was promptly corrected).
The ultimate measure of our success is found in the actions we choose to take or not to take.  These actions are grounded in our practices.  For change to occur in something as large as systemic racism requires the persistence of each of our practices day to day as we evolve to a better tomorrow.  Only through the individual efforts of all of us can we hope to make change, to evolve.  What part will you personally play?