“Your job is to make me look good. My job is to make you look good” ~ Kenneth J. Sperl

Ken Sperl uttered those words to me when I was a baby lawyer. On second thought I was a clerk, a lawyer in training, when I received that nugget of wisdom. I call it a nugget of wisdom because he unwittingly embodied and supervised me and my colleagues—attorneys, clerks, and admins— to two of the critical characteristics, one might say, virtues, that help define the equitable and inclusive leader: humility and vulnerability.

In retrospect, I can see how these two principles form the bedrock of the work that I do every day of advising my clients on building more equitable institutions. Our approach in advising our clients is steeped in equitable, inclusive governance and compliance built on a foundation of organizational and individual wellness. Based on my experience working with a myriad of organizational leaders, I have learned how having the correct internal framework or compass is essential to doing this work and remaining open overtime so that equitable legacies may be built. It is only by staying rooted in these virtues that we can sustain the long-term focus to accomplish meaningful structural change.

Before we continue, let’s define humility and vulnerability. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines humility as: the quality of not being proud because you are aware of your bad qualities. Likewise, it defines vulnerability as: the quality of being…able to be easily hurt, influenced, or attacked. What does it mean to embody these qualities? Why is it important? How can leaders who are committed to inclusion and equity embody these qualities? We often hear about the servant leader, the leaders who create inclusive and equitable workplaces. In my nearly thirty-year career as a lawyer and legal professional, I have been fortunate to experience what it means to embody those characteristics. This article explores the interior framework that these kinds of leaders all seem to share.

On Humility

In my work supporting leaders and organizations seeking to transform themselves and the workplaces in which they operate to be more equitable and inclusive, we always advise them that doing ‘the work’ of DEI (ARCDEI+ ( Anti-racism, Coloniality, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) as we dub it in my firm)– is important because it signals that while you are a leader, you are open to critique. Humility signals that you are open to being called out to be called in to do the work of including marginalized and oppressed voices and communities into creating an inclusive and equitable workspace. Whether it is critiques about inequitable performance evaluation processes, call outs of recruitment processes that exclude people from marginalized and oppressed communities because of unconscious and explicit biases, the daily harm expressed through biases and microaggressions that persist and remain unaddressed to inequitable pay– the leader who wants to embody humility listens to the lived experience expressed by those whom they are leading; accepts it as honest and candid critique and engages in the conversation towards transforming their workplace. The humble leader understands that the critiques and lived experiences of harm and inequities in the workplace come from a place of candor and honesty. The critiques are an expression of trust in the leader’s humility– that the leader will acknowledge the truth in the critique. “Humility shows up and calls the humble leader to step in to acknowledge when they have unwittingly harmed others; in the epiphanous moments of awareness that they have been dismissive of, or ignorant of the lived experiences of their colleagues and other people in their workplace. Humility shows up in the admission that you may not be as far along in the journey of inclusion, equity, and anti-racism and stepping aside to learn and grow–regardless of your social or organizational status.” The humble leader messages that they will continue to work in collaboration to help transform the organization and themselves. In sum, humble leaders acknowledge that while they may be leaders in the workplace they are only one of many doing the daily work of creating a workplace that embodies and operates equitably and inclusively.

On Vulnerability

Humility’s sister is vulnerability. While humility means the leaders acknowledge when they cause harm and do the work of including marginalized voices to transform the workplace to be equitable and inclusive, vulnerability “…calls us to accept that those whom we’ve harmed are not required to accept our apologies. Vulnerability calls us to step into extending our privilege and calling out others who may be a part of our in-group when they have harmed those of marginalized identities and oppressed communities.”2

Leaders frequently say they want their workplace to be diverse, equitable, and inclusive. They start to do the work and then demand of those who have been harmed and marginalized to dismiss historical and on-going harms and accept the work towards transformation as an apology or solution. Leaders unwittingly demand they no longer be critiqued and close the door to continued critiques. Behind the ongoing critique by those of marginalized identities and oppressed communities are several reactions. First is a lack of trust. Lack of trust that the leader is truly humble particularly if there is a time limit on that humility, or if the leader is performing humility instead of actually embodying humility. Second is a sense that there is a lack of transparency. Without being overly paternalistic in my metaphors, that lack of transparency is akin to discipling a child in and at the moment when they’ve misbehaved. In other words, you want for harmful behavior to be timed with restorative action and to explain properly why you are taking the restorative action. Those harmed want to know you understand the dimensions and impacts of the harm caused; that you acknowledge the harm, will change the behavior and continue to take the steps towards transformation. Going in knowing that this is a career long process which will always be critiqued by those who have been harmed and oppressed is the embodiment of vulnerability. It is part and parcel to my international governance and rule of law work. It is often extremely rewarding and often work that is not thanked. Vulnerability is understanding that your reward may have to come with the knowledge that you are transforming culture, still have trust from your team, and that you are building a legacy of inclusion and equity and helping to dismantle oppressions within your organization.

On Remaining Open

How can leaders embody humility and vulnerability? In our work we advise leaders to build self-awareness and practice self-care. I am a big proponent of mindfulness and meditation practices. There is significant evidence and research on the benefits of mindfulness in raising our awareness of self and others. Meditation supports stress management, stress alleviation, and strengthens cognitive skills. My firm also works with and we highly recommend Paraplu Wellness and 13-Lunas to help support you in your self-awareness journey and cultivating a self-care frame around your ARCDEI work towards being a humble leader and vulnerably showing up. I also advise checking yourself when you find yourself impatient during the process of transformation towards an equitable and inclusive workplace. Self-awareness allows you to stop and be mindful of the moments of your defensiveness and when to acknowledge you are resisting suggestions and advice to build on your self-care to continue to show up and acknowledge harm caused and to continue to do the required and requested work. Other tools and practices that may boost your efforts to achieve humility and vulnerability include cooking, gardening, exercise, yoga, Qi Gong, Tai Chi, hiking, running and walking. These recommendations are not exhaustive, you know yourself best – so keep trying and see what works for you.

Whatever the case, any activities that can help you reflect and center your values will support you to continue to embody those two key qualities and build the stamina to create a legacy of equity and inclusion.

About the Authors 

Chipo C. Nyambuya, Co-Founder and a Managing Partner of CZL P.C., leads Legal Services. She is a highly respected corporate council, legal consultant, and a leader in corporate social responsibility (CSR) development. She brings twenty-five years of cross-sector experience as a lawyer and policy advisor for Fortune 500 corporations, social entrepreneurs/social enterprises, start-ups, international development agencies, and foreign governments.  Her first-generation identity as the daughter of a Liberian mother and Zimbabwean father has contributed to her strong interests in anti-racism, decolonization, diversity, equity, and inclusion in both US and international communities.

She received her A.B. with distinction from the University of Michigan and her Juris Doctor from The Ohio State University, School of Law.