Transformational Leaders and Respect for Human Dignity

Transformational Leaders and Respect for Human Dignity

Last month, we explored the challenging obstacles we face as a society in moving forward to greater justice, inclusion, and equity. We explored the motivations behind the “anti-woke” efforts that are being spearheaded by politicians and theological groups working to resegregate American society. 

Christian Nationalist groups have worked tirelessly to drive wedges into the American political landscape and consequently, into the fabric of our communities, schools, workplaces, and more. We are seeing the manifestation of decades of preparation and effort they have put into using politics, homeschooling, and “school choice,” the media, and the courts to reclaim what they believe is their divinely ordained right to shape society in their theological and ideological vision. 

These efforts have had enormous consequences for every aspect of our societal fabric and infrastructure. They have widened the political divide and have sewn seeds of distrust and disconnect creating greater tension among American citizens and consequently in our communities and workplaces. In the face of these monumental challenges, how do we support and sustain DEI efforts in workplaces, organizations, and communities? How do we withstand the persistent misinformation and toxic messaging attempting to paint DEI as insidious “wokeness?”

Reframing DEI as RHD

In order to move our organizations forward with DEI work, individuals must be willing to engage in the deeper work on what it means to create an organizational culture that first and foremost operates from a place we can refer to as Respect for Human Dignity (RHD). 

In this work, we all must develop the skills necessary to distinguish between efforts to distract us (ie. the attacks on “wokeness”) and, instead, be willing to ask uncomfortable questions and face inconvenient truths determining whether or not organizations are living up to their stated values. We must also engage in practices and develop organizational policies that are inclusive and that educate our teams to develop a greater understanding of equity. 

In other words, organizations must live out these matters holistically through what we like to call a “Heads-Hands-Heart” approach to the work,  which centers RHD and demands that an organization prioritize the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of people over all else. Here are steps you can take to address each of these aspects within your communities:

The Head

Leaders must be clear about what is meant by “RHD” and how it shapes the work with your leadership team and the entire community. Is there a willingness to engage in dialogue and conversation about what diversity, equity, and inclusion means to each constituency? Are you ready to explicitly state that your efforts are anti-racist? Are you willing to call out and eliminate anti-Blackness in your community? Leaders must be willing to utilize their platforms to share this information with their communities to form very clear definitions and language so that the community is on the same page. 

Leaders can also identify ways to infuse RHD into the core values of their organizations and be willing to state clearly what values your organization stands for and what behaviors you stand against. Many states are trying to prohibit organizations from explicitly utilizing RHD language and practices. However, infusing diversity, equity, and inclusion language into your core values, your policies, your practices, and the mission of your organization is crucial to circumvent these legislative efforts and to send a statement to your community that these issues matter. 

There is also an opportunity to be aware of, actively address, and be willing to educate your community on the myths around RHD and respond clearly  in ways that your community can understand. For example, one myth states that RHD work is “indoctrinating” people into one way of thinking and that critical thinking and “diversity of thought” is being stifled. In fact, the opposite is true. RHD work inherently uses a critical lens through which norms are challenged and deeper perspectives are shared. As part of your RHD work, make sure to educate your community about RHD and what the world looked like before diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, the Civil Right Movement, etc. Understanding history matters.

Moreover, communicate clearly why RHD matters and be willing to address the “it’s doing more harm than good” crowd by being prepared to present ample data available that demonstrates the positive benefits and impact of this work.

The Hands

Nothing communicates a true commitment to equity than policies enacted and actions taken daily to practice equity in all you do. The following are some examples of how you can engage in these practices: 

You can begin by assembling a senior leadership team that sets high expectations for itself to be collaborative and that communicates with consistency the vision and expectations for embedding equitable practices across the organization.

Folks throughout an organization should also see a clear and consistent pattern of senior leadership responding visibly, quickly, and forcefully to acts of discrimination, bigotry, and hate within the organization.

Senior leaders and heads of organizations should speak up consistently and visibly in response to acts of hate and bigotry in our larger society as these issues will “hit home” much more for some within your organization than for others. The anti-DEI folks will cry out loudly that your organization is “woke.” Speak out anyway.

Furthermore, a robust professional development education and ongoing training curriculum should be delivered annually to all employees. There should also be clear communication of the expectations management, senior leaders, and all employees have within the organization to be educated in, and how to apply equitable practices.

Additionally, a performance evaluation system should be implemented for all employees and leaders to measure progress and individual and departmental contributions to the organization’s RHD values and mission. There should also be clear and robust language in employee handbooks regarding anti-discrimination policies and an annual assessment that can track incidents that violate the organization’s deeply held values and beliefs.

Moreover, human resources departments should deliver robust onboarding and exit interview processes which will include clear language and education on equitable hiring practices, employee retention, new employee orientation programs, and identifying and assessing during the exit interview process, the possible impact of anti-Blackness, LGBTQIA bigotry, sexual harassment, sexism, misogyny,  etc. as contributing factors in the loss of talent. Institutions should also engage in an annual review process as they assess institutional commitment, effectiveness, progress, and attention to RHD.

Organizations should also put into place senior leader(s) into executive positions to advance RHD. This person should not be relegated to being a “crisis manager,” but should be someone who is a knowledge expert, who will provide guidance, who will be relational, a collaborator, and a champion who empowers others to step up, who inspires all members of the organization to infuse RHD into their work, and who is given the authority and institutional leverage to move the organization forward in all of its RHD initiatives.

The Heart

“Facts don’t care about your feelings.”

We live in a world where “the bottom line” or “winning” is all that seem to matter. Companies, politicians, etc. seem willing and happy to take whatever steps necessary in order to win or maximize profit even at the expense or exploitation of people, the environment, communities, equity,  inclusion, good character, and decency.

We have been here before. 

During the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King Jr. recognized the moment when the country seemed irreparably divided. He called upon Americans to look in the mirror and engage in deeper soul-searching. Near the end of his speech entitled, “Beyond Vietnam,” King offered these challenges to our nation and to a global audience which are quite applicable today:

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values…We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered…The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.” 6

King’s call for a revolution of values must extend not just to individuals, but to all of the institutions that form the fabric of our society. A revolution of values begins and ends in our hearts.

When we talk about the heart in leadership and RHD work, we are referring to the humility needed to intentionally and consistently hold a mirror up to oneself and to our organizations to acknowledge and accept what we see in front of us. Leading with the heart means taking the path rarely chosen by leaders; the willingness to listen, to learn, and to change.

Listening means a willingness to create spaces within your organization to intentionally seek out those voices that are typically absent, overlooked, or ignored. Listening means a willingness to set aside ego and learn something new.

Learning means applying what we have absorbed in dialogues, data collection, and in the intentional outreach we engage in to foster and forge deep meaningful connections with the human beings in our communities. Learning manifests in new ways of thinking, being, and doing. 

Changing means taking what we have learned and applying it visibly and with a sense of deep and genuine commitment. Change may mean a willingness to stop using “BIPOC” or “Non-White” when you really mean to address issues impacting Black folks. Change may mean a willingness to speak out against legislation or policies that dehumanize and/or make second-class citizens out of entire groups based on their identities. Change may mean eliminating outdated practices and policies or long cherished traditions that contribute to inequity and dehumanization and, instead,  implementing new norms and traditions that more closely align with RHD. Change may mean a willingness to leave money on the table by walking away from working with groups that foster bigotry, hate, and division.

Of these three, the most challenging is change. Change may mean giving up aspects of our privilege that folks have benefitted from and taken for granted. Change may result in the loss of old friends and acquaintances who cannot handle your decision to stand up for your values. Change may mean that your bottom line or stock price takes a temporary hit. 

In their recent book, Immunity to Change, Lisa Lahey and Robert Kegan write about the factors at play that make individuals and organizations often immune to change. 7

Among these factors, the authors contend, includes our willingness or unwillingness to acknowledge our own complicity in the challenges we face. Other factors include the misdiagnoses of technical vs adaptive challenges. The potential solutions to many of these challenges lie in the hearts of leaders and their willingness to engage in honest reflection of our commitments, identifying what we are doing or not doing to make progress on those commitments, naming our hidden competing commitments, and acknowledging the hidden assumptions we make as leaders when embarking on the work. 8

In other words, these efforts are complex, they take time, and they take an intentional and lasting commitment to the respect and dignity of every human being (ie. RHD). They require us to identify what stories our communities are telling us and how to address the factual circumstances and information we uncover with understanding, empathy, and conviction.

Facts may not care about feelings, but empathetic, impactful, and transformational leaders do.




  1. : kingdom coming michelle goldberg
  2. Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism–and What Comes Next: Onishi, Bradley: 9781506482163: Books
  3. The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War: Sharlet, Jeff: 9781324006497: Books
  4. A Pennsylvania Lawmaker and the Resurgence of Christian Nationalism | The New Yorker
  5. How Christian Is Christian Nationalism? | The New Yorker
  6. American Rhetoric: Martin Luther King, Jr: A Time to Break Silence (Declaration Against the Vietnam War)  
  7. Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization (Leadership for the Common Good): Kegan, Robert, Lahey, Lisa Laskow: 9781422117361: Books
  8. Ibid.


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