Today, June 17th, 2021, President Joe Biden signed into law a new federal holiday recognizing Juneteenth, or the day celebrated by African-Americans throughout America of the pivotal moment in 1865 when Union Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger declared the states' 250,000 enslaved peoples free in accordance with Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier.
This new holiday is significant because it accomplishes two things - 1) it federally recognizes a crucial moment linked to the evils of slavery (currently under attack by some hard line conservatives as they attempt to rewrite history and soften the blow of slavery for the modern age) and 2) it reminds us of the real heroes whose efforts ultimately influenced Lincoln's hand - the early abolitionists like Frederick Douglass who fought the political fight for freedom, the revolutionaries like Nat Turner and Harriett Tubman who revolted against the established order and innovated paths out of slavery like the Underground Railroad, and the thousands of Black soldiers who took up arms during the Civil War to fight and die for their right to be considered free and equally human as white Americans.
What this holiday does not do is enhance equity for African-Americans. It doesn't come with reparations for slavery or more economic opportunities or less racial bias or better schools or safer communities. It also doesn't heal old wounds or the nation. Healing requires time, tenderness, and tested tonics to do the trick - none of which can be accomplished by a holiday or celebration. It does, however, create the opportunity to ask the fundamental question plaguing society and business today - what are the injustices - racial and otherwise (like those that Juneteenth recognizes) that are happening in my own community, city, state, business today that we need to acknowledge and actively work to eradicate.
For injustice without purposeful action to eradicate it at the source will only proliferate and further denigrate those most impacted.
It is time for those calling themselves leaders in business to step up and meet this moment. Not just because it is the humane, morale, and right thing to do for people, but because it also makes for good business in the climate where the actions and inactions of companies are more transparently available than ever before. Leaders should heed the lessons of companies that have paid the steep price for not eradicating internal racial bias and discrimination and understand that inaction equals high business risk. Stepping up requires a somewhat painful examination of injust and inequitable policies that have been allowed to pervade and permeate the very fabric of a company's DNA. Focus less on extrinsic factors and far more on the internal work that must be done for employees that will ultimately lead to positive externalities for a variety of key stakeholders beyond shareholders.
J.E.D.I. leadership is about leveraging positional power, authority, trust, and influence to continuously eradicate these internal injustices, eliminate inequities, expand diversity, and enhance inclusion for employees in order to drive greater value for customers, communities, the environment, and shareholders. It is aiming the tremendous value generation machinery of the enteprise at itself in the effort to root out toxic policies, behavior, and (if necessary) people who are not aligned with the elevated goals of stakeholder capitalism. It is doing this because to not do it would significantly minimize an organization's effectiveness by being unattractive to qualified talents, unable to innovate due to lack of diversity, and at constant risk of negative financial events such as law suits, fines, penalties, and sanctions.
Just as publically recognizing Juneteenth can set the stage for significant future progress, so can business leaders do the same internally by recognizing that there most certainly are injustices and inequities inherent in the policies of the company and/or how they are carried out. And if leaders want a quick win today, follow President Biden's lead and not only give all your employees Friday June 19th off in accordance with the federal holiday, but more importantly, explain why taking this day off is meaningful for your business.
If you want to learn more about the intersection between business leadership and corporate social justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion - take a few minutes and preview my new book Be a J.E.D.I. Leader, Not a Boss: Leadership in the Era of Corporate Social Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion below and click the link to pre-order your copy today!
Omar L. Harris is the managing partner at Intent Consulting, a firm dedicated to improving employee experience and organizational performance via implementation of J.E.D.I. leadership principles and author of Leader Board: The DNA of High-Performance Teams, The Servant Leader's Manifesto, and Be a J.E.D.I. Leader, Not a Boss: Leadership in the Era of Corporate Social Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion available for purchase in ebook or print on Amazon.com. Please follow him Instagram, Twitter, and/or LinkedIn for more information and engagement.