The protests following the death of George Floyd, an African-American man killed by police during an arrest in Minneapolis in May, have led to a national moment of reckoning on the issue of police misconduct.
Floyd’s death has also led to a moment of reckoning on the larger issue of discrimination in American society…and, I believe, to a moment of reckoning on the subject of accountable leadership.
A prominent congressman recently announced legislation designed to “hold reckless police accountable.” His words echoed similar language from others in government, media, and in activist circles about “holding police accountable.” At the risk of raising a difficult and awkward question, let me ask: Is that really the best way for us to frame this discussion?
Do police need to be responsible for their actions? You bet.
But do we also need to stop for a moment and think about whether rhetoric about “holding police accountable” is likely to lead to sustainable improvements in police practices?
Does the ominous threat to hold anyone accountable, for anything, ever lead to sustainable improvements? Or is such a threat more likely to lead to disengagement, cynicism, and deeper and deeper cycles of polarization?
What really happens when we threaten to “hold people accountable”? Do they look forward to that process? Does it make them glad they have signed on with us? Does it make them eager to find ways to do their jobs better?
Of course I know that alarming numbers of our police have failed to be accountable to the citizens they are sworn to protect and serve. Let me suggest, though, that instead of blindly following the urge to “hold people accountable,” we would be better off asking ourselves, at this critical moment, How did we get here?
If we look honestly at that question, we will find that the entrenched racial discrimination that so many people are rightly protesting is actually a failure of accountable leadership.
Leaders have allowed discriminatory ways of thinking to persist, in police departments and in countless other settings in American society. And this is the real problem we need to confront. A profound failure of leadership has led to a collapse of the core commitment I call “It’s All of Us.”
- When we commit to “It’s All of Us,” we accept that we do not succeed unless the other person succeeds — and we accept that if the other person fails, we fail. This commitment starts with the people in our lives, and it extends outward until it eventually encompasses the entire human family.
(By the way, there are any number of equally vital commitments that discriminatory attitudes from our leaders destroy…but let’s start with this one.)
Here is how accountability actually works: We are responsible for things. We are accountable to people. If we want police officers to commit to “It’s All of Us,” and to follow through on that commitment to the citizens they are sworn to protect and serve, then leadership has to make and fulfill that same commitment to the officers first. That has not happened in many, many American cities. And that is a failure of leadership.
What kind of leadership, specifically, am I talking about? Well, we could always start with the leadership of the police force and the leadership of the police unions. But which police force and which police union? We need to acknowledge that this is not one city’s or one department’s problem. We are talking about many police forces and many police unions. Leadership in all of those institutions, I would argue, must call timeout and take a close look at their own willingness to make and follow through on this commitment.
You know what, though? The problem goes even deeper than that. Police attitudes are shaped by leadership in the local government, too, and by leadership in the local community. All of those leaders, in addition, need to do some self-examination on the degree to which they have made, and followed through on, a personal commitment to “It’s All of Us.”
But wait a minute…which community are we talking about? Minneapolis? Atlanta? St. Louis? Birmingham? Los Angeles? All of the above? I’m going to challenge the status quo a bit here and say that this problem connects to the leadership of the entire country. And no, I am not just pointing fingers at the current federal leadership. I am pointing at all our leadership, as it has expressed itself at any and every level of authority on this continent, for the past 400 years.
Our society’s leadership has allowed this way of thinking to perpetuate. It has done so for a very long time. And it is continuing to allow discrimination to perpetuate right now.
Whenever there is an accountability problem, the lack of accountability that makes it possible always flows from the top. And let’s face it: This particular accountability problem has existed pervasively at multiple levels in our society since long before the founding of our nation. Which means leadership at all levels, past and present, is at fault.
Now, it is very difficult to embrace accountability at the lower level if the change is not made at the top level first. Not impossible, but difficult.
In a business, it is a major, major challenge to create a group of highly accountable middle-level leaders when the senior leader is not accountable, or when the executive team is not accountable.
But you know what? It can be done.
If enough people at various positions throughout the organization are willing to look in the mirror, take stock of their situation, and step up as leaders, that organization can create an Accountability Revolution of sorts from within…even when the nominal leaders are failing the “It’s All of Us” test.
And this, I would argue, is what needs to happen nationally.
This challenge, this opportunity, is what we are all struggling with at this crucial moment. We need to make accountability to “It’s All of Us” happen in our own world, first, whether or not we see it happening at the top of our department, our union, our city, our state, or our national government.
We need to step up personally as leaders in our own world. We need to recognize that this problem is not limited to Minneapolis or Los Angeles or Austin or Buffalo. This accountability issue is one we face as a country, and as a people. And it starts at home.
We have collectively allowed racial discrimination to persist. We have collectively fallen short of the mark. We have collectively turned a blind eye to this problem, not just for decades, but for centuries.
How, exactly, did we do that? Too many of us saw clear evidence of exactly what was happening, knew it was wrong, and thought, “Oh, this is terrible” — but then we moved on with our own lives and our own priorities, because we imagined the problem did not impact us directly.
But it does affect us directly. If the present moment shows us anything, it shows us that we are all part of this problem and all suffering while it goes unsolved. To fix it, we will each have to choose to be part of the solution.
We must each make a personal commitment to “It’s All of Us” to all our fellow citizens in this country — specifically including those whose attitudes we are protesting. Why? Because we are all in this together. If we do not use this moment to recognize that fact and embrace this commitment, as a nation, then we are in deep, deep trouble.
Discrimination in America is not “a problem.” It is not “the problem.” It is our problem.
There is no use saying “It’s not me; I don’t discriminate; I didn’t put my knee on anyone’s neck.” We all brought the nation to this moment, whether we want to admit that or not. And as a result, we must each commit to coming together to address the problem collectively. We must each make “It’s All of Us” a commitment that we are willing to be personally accountable to one another for. When you win, I win. When you lose, I lose. Period.
Change has got to start with each of us, because each of us is connected to this problem in one way or another. Everything that goes on in our society impacts us, whether we realize it or not. Change starts with each of us asking, How can I live this commitment called “It’s All of Us” more fully…and for whom can I live that commitment? And make no mistake: the Accountability Revolution starts right now, with us as individuals, in this moment.
I will share some thoughts on what that change looks like in my next post.