As a Navy veteran, John M. Robinson, director of the Office of Civil Rights and chief diversity officer at the U.S. Department of State, likes to share a story about the battleship Missouri. The huge ship was making its way down a narrow channel when suddenly the crew saw a light closing in fast. The ship signaled to the light in their path to move out of the way. But when the signal came back, the answer was “No, you move.” The captain was furious. He got on the radio and announced, “This is the Mighty Battleship Missouri. Make way.” And this time, the signal came back: “And this is the lighthouse.”
In this case, the lighthouse represents leadership commitment to the principles of diversity and inclusion, Robinson told the audience of senior executives at DiversityInc’s two-day learning event in Washington, D.C.
“Lighthouses do not move,” Robinson said. “They are fixed points on the landscape by which others can find their way. Leaders need to do no more than stand for equity, fairness and inclusion and let others see the light, so they can find their way.”
When it comes to diversity and inclusion, senior leaders in an organization set the tone—and their leadership commitment must be visible and personal, Robinson said.
“You don’t get trickle-up diversity,” he said. “It has to start with the leadership. It must be visible and specific to your workforce. It should be personal. You should tell your own story and be sure to say to your subordinates that they are accountable to you, and they should know it. Your commitment should be expressed routinely, the same way that you would check budget issues or other things in your strategic plan.”
His advice to leaders: “Remember a situation, event or scenario where you have witnessed, or, better yet, had to live out your commitment to the principles of equity, fairness and inclusion, particularly if it involves race, gender, age, sexual orientation or disability. How did you express yourself? How did you speak truth or defend the rights of someone?”
He said the State Department recently launched a video series where top leaders speak about their diversity journeys and share their own personal stories.
“The only instruction we gave them was the story had to be personal and they couldn’t speak from any notes and they had five minutes, and each presentation was spectacular,” he said.
He showed the audience two clips, including one of Harold Koh, a Korean American who serves as a general counsel at the State Department and who moved to Tacoma Park, Md., when he was only 5.
“My brother came home from school and told us that his class was half white and half Black, and at recess, the Black kids and the white kids silently divided into different baseball teams and started playing separately, and as an Asian, my brother literally did not know what team he was on,” Koh said.
Koh explained that his mother got her doctorate from Boston University in 1955 and would later discover that the Black man pictured in between her and a Scandinavian friend in the yearbook was none other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“They were all 26 years old. Thirteen years later, Martin Luther King Jr. was dead, but he had changed the world,” Koh said in the video clip. “Picture that day, 50 years ago. A Korean woman, an African-American man, and a Scandinavian man, all marching on the American stage to get their degrees. Flash forward to today. The son of that woman is the legal adviser to a woman secretary of state who serves in a Cabinet of a president who is the first African American since Dr. King to win the Nobel Peace Prize. And all of these people hold their jobs in a country where not so long ago, none of us would have had the right to vote.”
Robinson said every organization can tap into this valuable resource if they provide their leaders an opportunity and a forum to share their stories.
“It costs nothing,” he says. “All you really need to do is ask.”