Lean Into Discomfort Rather Than Tapping Out on Social Justice Issues

Long before the insanity of 2020 began, our disruptive world was illuminating the findings of Brené Brown’s latest research – that the future of leadership and thriving businesses demands braver leaders and courageous cultures. Boy, have events of recent months illustrated that need more than ever!

I don’t know about you, but layering a global social justice crisis on top of a global health crisis has been challenging at its best and overwhelming at times for me. My heart aches for all that is going on. It seems as though almost everyone I talk to and coach is experiencing a profound sense of overwhelm and fatigue; they can’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. At the same time, I’m encouraged by the humanity that is emerging like I’ve never seen before, and it gives me hope.

Here’s what I do know…now is not a time for our comfort or our silence. I’ve been awakened in these past two months about the profound difference between not considering myself personally racist and being an antiracist. Here I’ve sat in oblivion thinking “it’s not me” because I’ve always had black and brown friends and family. So I’ve been educating myself and learning things I was never taught in my history classes growing up. I’ve been floored to realize how so many deeply rooted systems have been put in place allowing me and my fellow Caucasians to benefit while oppressing our friends, neighbors, colleagues and community members of color. 

I found myself sitting here after George Floyd’s brutal murder and the riots here in Minneapolis not knowing what to do. I started reaching out to my friends and colleagues of color simply to check in on them and let them know I was holding them in my heart and committing to now longer being silent about race issues. I had these thoughts of “they’re probably going to think I’m being token.” and “I’m going to sound like an idiot.” But I did it anyway. You know what? No one reacted how my head imagined it. Everyone I connected with expressed appreciation.

I even stuck my neck out last month during a client meeting. It was the first subgroup meeting after George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders and the elephant in the room. The group had one black man [Bill] and the rest were white men. I recall thinking, “Bill [not his real name] is probably gonna think I’m speaking out of my ass or be irritated” but I brought up the race topic and what I’d been learning. Bill just sat there while this group discussed things. One person said something about people not believing systemic racism exists. I immediately pushed back saying something like, “This isn’t the Tooth Fairy or religion. It isn’t something to believe or not; it’s fact. People not ‘believing’ it just shows privilege and ignorance.”

Eventually Bill spoke up and shared a little about what his life is like as a black man. He did the same at the next meeting and shared blatant racism he encountered over the years at the company. The group members were shocked and awoke to the fact that more work needs to be done. 

A couple of weeks ago, I had a short check-in meeting with Bill. What’s interesting is that he thanked me for speaking up and awakening him. He had gotten complacent, fatigued and checked out on race issues because, to him, it’s just his daily life. He said he appreciated me sticking my neck out and waking him up again and he’s motivated to be part of positive change rather than sitting back and accepting being marginalized.

Why do I share all of this? Because, like many of you, I have had all kinds of self-limiting narrative that would keep me from speaking up: 

  • What if I say the wrong thing? 
  • Who the hell am I to talk about this stuff?
  • They’re going to think I’m insincere
  • I’m going to piss off people

And what I’ve learned is that, because I’ve chosen to lean into the discomfort instead of armoring up and tapping out, it’s making a difference – even with people and in places I never imagined. I also realized that I can’t authentically be out on the various platforms I have advocating for truly human workplaces and not address race and bias.

Now more than ever, we need brave leaders. And it starts with doing our own deep self-inquiry and inner work. If you’re like I was a few weeks ago (and like many others I’ve connected with recently) and are struggling for where to start, here are some considerations I hope you find helpful:

  • Acknowledge – Acknowledge that, even if people don’t see it or are in denial, systemic racism is very real and people are hurting and dying daily as a result. Acknowledge if you’re in a position of privilege simply due to the color of your skin and/or your gender. Acknowledge that we cannot possibly fully understand what it’s like to be a person of color in this country and that their experiences are profoundly different than ours.
  • Educate – Educate yourself on the history of our systems of oppression and how, 50+ years after the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr., we still have our brothers and sisters of color asking to be seen as human and begging for fair treatment (and their lives). Educate yourself and others on how to talk about race and be part of positive change. Here are some great resources I’ve been digging into:
    • Just Mercy [movie] – I found myself pissed off, crying and having another level of appreciation for how messed up our systems really are.
    • Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness – this is an eye-opening discussion between Brené Brown and Austin Channing Brown. Austin put it well when she said that, “the work of antiracism is becoming a better human to other humans.” They discuss the common “tap outs” when people get uncomfortable and how to lean in instead.
    • How to be an Antiracist this is an insightful discussion between Brené Brown and Ibram X Kendi. They discuss his groundbreaking approach to understanding racism and inequality in our society and ourselves. They look at the false hierarchies of human value in our society. 
    • What is a Microaggression [article with embedded video] – this is a great article from NPR about the role microaggressions play in our society and how they further marginalize people.
    • So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo [book] –  this is a New York Times Bestseller. Ijeoma guides readers of all races through a variety of subjects to help make the seemingly impossible possible – honest conversations about race and racism, and how they infect almost every aspect of American life.
    • How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi [book] – this is a New York Times Bestseller. Ibram helps with understanding and uprooting racism and inequality in our society and ourselves.
    • Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think and Do by Jennifer Eberhardt [book] – Jennifer offers language and the courage we need to face racial disparities and inequities at all levels within our society and systems. She shows how we can be vulnerable to bias but not doomed to live under its grip.
    • White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo [book] –  this is a New York Times Bestseller that examines the counterproductive reactions white people have when their assumptions about race are challenged – and how these reactions perpetuate racial inequality. She then provides guidance for how we can engage more constructively.

*If possible, support black-owned bookstores by purchasing your books from one of these retailers provided here.


  • LISTEN. Listen to people of color with a spirit of understanding and an outward mindset to hear what it’s like for them. With every individual and team I work with, we’ve been revisiting our listening skills, because it’s so easy to move into listening to reply and solve these days; after all, listening to understand means we have to lean into the discomfort.
  • Commit. Commit to getting it right, not being right (i.e., defending, judging, etc.). Commit to educating yourself first and then moving beyond awareness, talk and education to action. Commit to standing up for people of color when you hear microaggressions, racist or marginalized statements. Commit to leaning into the discomfort rather than tapping out and calling yourself and your teams to greatness.  

This social justice crisis is not going away and is the elephant in the room right now. We can’t talk around it and jump to agenda items and to-do’s. We have to see and hear people and lean into the discomfort that is required to usher in positive, humanistic change.

I’m sick of having to have conversations with my son about why people are dying and mistreated because of the color of their skin; I want a better world for him! I hope you’ll join me in taking the mute buttons off and show up as brave leaders. We will mess up. We will say the wrong things. When we do, we can own it, clean it up, and commit to getting it right rather than being right.

I’d love to hear…How are you leaning into the discomfort and showing up as a leader these days?

Stay brave. Stay human. Stay safe. And never dull your sparkle!

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