Why Good Leaders Sometimes Have To Use Their “N-Word”


(This post originally appeared on Inc.)

This past weekend President Obama said the “N-word” in public.

“Racism, we are not cured of it,” The President said in an interview. “And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say n****r in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.”

The President made these remarks in light of the tragic shootings that recently took place in Charleston. Other racially influenced events, from police beatings to inner city riots have shaken the country and increased calls for more gun control over the past few years. And he’s drawing attention to those issues again. As you can imagine, media reaction was intense and everyone on both sides of the political aisle voiced either support or opposition to the President’s use of a word that is rarely ever uttered in public due to its offensive and controversial nature.

But he said it. It’s an ugly, unhappy word that brings up ugly, unhappy images.–that of racism, slavery, hate and oppression. This is not a word he wanted to use, or even a conversation he chose to have. And, trust me, he knew the effect it would have. These issues have been around for a long, long time. There are many who would prefer not to make the issue of racism or even gun control a public discussion. There are many who would prefer not to have to hear the N-word and all that it represents.

Which brings me to both Andrew and Jennifer.

Andrew (not his real name, but a real person), is a client of mine and a partner at a local accounting firm. Every week Andrew receives an ugly, unhappy report that also brings up ugly, unhappy images of anger, frustration, disgruntlement and dissatisfaction. It’s his firm’s “Open Issues” report. In it, he insists that his managers report to him on every single client problem that is open. There are complaints about service, errors on tax returns, dissatisfaction with response times and other grievances, both significant and petty. The report raises issues that he’d rather not even know about it and that could cause him liabilities, apologies or even refunds for work performed. But he seeks these issues out so that he can address them. There are many business owners I know who would prefer to avoid client problems. They operate knowing that there will always be problems and they can’t all be solved, so it’s best to just focus on the good stuff. Andrew is not like that.

Jennifer (also changing her name) is another small business owner I know who does something similar with her employees. She makes it a point to individually meet with key managers and other subordinates frequently. Jennifer asks hard questions about the business, other managers, and herself as an employer. She wants to know which employees are unhappy and why. She digs, with their permission, into the delicate issues of health, paid time off, disabilities, performance and equal pay so that she can better be aware of any problems. There are many people who would avoid discussing these delicate matters with their staff because they just don’t want to know, don’t care or are afraid of exposing themselves to potential liabilities. They avoid the tough words and would prefer to behave as if the issues don’t exist at all and deal with them if and when they arise. Jennifer is not like that.

Business owners have their equivalents of the “N-word.” Among them are the “L-word” (liability). Or the “A-word” (apology). Or the “R-word” (refund). Some business owners avoid using these words at all costs. They fear what they represent. Others are not afraid to.

To the President’s credit, he didn’t send a representative to speak on his behalf and he didn’t issue a bland statement that would cover his political neck. He dove into the problem using a word that he knew would be controversial because that’s what leaders do. They don’t avoid problems and issues just because they’re difficult. They seek them out and dive into them. What about you? Do you actively search out and solve problems? Do you run away from employee issues just because the issue makes you uncomfortable? Do you ignore customer complaints or pretend that everyone’s happy just because it makes you feel better? Are you afraid to hear feedback from your employees and discuss openly those work concerns that affect their lives? What is your “N-word?”


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