Two thousand of the nation’s diversity advocates gathered this April in Dallas, Texas for the 15th Annual National Diversity and Leadership Conference.
Attendees enjoyed more than sixty different panel discussions, including topics such as “Creating Your Significance,” “Engaging White Males as True Champions of D&I” and “How to Accelerate Your Career Trajectory.” Successful leaders represented industries from various industries and corporations across the U.S. They shared career advice, personal leadership stories and proven strategies to drive business results.

Three thrilling keynote speakers – General Colin Powell, actress and activist America Ferrera and President Barack Obama — inspired attendees with messages of empowerment and servant leadership.

General Colin Powell’s takeaway message was to “Take care of your horses.” This phrase comes from a story about President Abraham Lincoln who, upon hearing a brigadier general and 100 horses had been captured by the Confederates, remarked “Sure hate to lose those horses.”

Lincoln followed up: “I can make a brigadier general in five minutes, but it’s not easy to replace 100 horses.”

What Powell took away from this popular military anecdote was that even the most powerful, influential leader is ultimately replaceable. It’s the front lines, the people who keep the gears of the organization running – the horses – who must be cared for by a true leader.

As Powell climbed the ranks and eventually became one of the most distinguished diplomats in the world, serving as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of State, and National Security Advisor, he credited his success to taking care of “his horses.”

Activist America Ferrera’s message focused on learning to embrace her full identity and her authentic lived experience in her line of work. She spoke of learning how to use her identity to enhance her leadership skills, instead of letting it stand in her way.

Early in her acting career, Ferrera described trying to hide the things that made her who she was: her body shape, the color of her hair, etc. Only after years of introspection did she realize “Who I am is not something to overcome. It’s not an identity to be shed. It’s what gives me power when I walk in the room.”

Ferrera described the American dream as “powerful and exciting,” but cautioned that it can set marginalized groups up for disappointment. If you internalize a narrative that anyone can be anything, and you encounter real systemic barriers like racism and sexism – this can feel like your own personal failure. Minorities can easily fall victim to thoughts like “If people who look like you are not achieving, it’s because people who look like you are not good enough.”

Ferrera succinctly and inspiringly expressed these hard-won personal lessons and encouraged those in attendance to put them into practice in their own leadership work.

Finally, on Thursday, April 11th, President Barack Obama, thrilled the crowd with tales of Michelle, Sasha, Malia, and his post-presidency life. President Obama also shared insight on how to build a high-performing team.

The most important thing Obama looks for while hiring? A record of stellar performance. He gave the example of his Director of FEMA, Craig Fugate. Fugate may not have had the polished “look” of a director of a national agency, but he “loved disasters.” He was on the ground whenever something happened, delivering excellent work. It was his performance — not his image — that made Fugate, and by default, Obama, successful.

Obama reminded the crowd that championing diversity is not as simple as choosing people who look a certain way and putting them at the top. To truly make a difference, give someone an entry-level opportunity, and invest in them and their careers. Identify their skills gaps and teach them what they need to know. With your patience and help, they can then work their own way to the top.

Thanks to the dedication and commitment of the panelists, organizers, and keynote speakers this April, the 2,000 attendees of 15th Annual National Diversity and Leadership Conference came that much closer to bridging their own skill gaps and advancing their careers.

About the Author

Jamie Hand is a supervisor at COUNTRY Financial in central Illinois. Jamie is an avid reader and is passionate about inclusive leadership and communication. She can be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.