Transforming Leadership with Wisdom from the LGBTQ Community with Dr. Joel Davis Brown, Chief Visionary Officer at Pneumos, LLC
Pneumos, LLC is a management consulting and coaching firm whose clients have included LinkedIn and the United Nations. Joel is a co-founder of the Global Inclusion Praxis Model, as well as the Global Inclusion Certification Program, a global institute designed to train practitioners on how to facilitate equity and work anywhere around the world. He is frequently tapped for keynote speaking and is the author of the groundbreaking book, The Souls of Queer Folk: How Understanding LGBTQ+ Culture Can Transform Your Leadership Practice.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: Welcome, Joel. We are so excited to have you on the show today. Thank you for joining me. As you know, a majority of our listeners are professionals and leaders within law firms. I’m very excited to talk to you today about leadership, and I understand that you are a recovering attorney.
Joel Davis Brown: I am, yes. Part of my leadership journey was defined by my time in the law firm. I practiced for about six years doing labor and employment litigation and commercial litigation. And so to all my lawyer friends out there, hello. And I’d love to get into this leadership topic.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: I’m excited because your book is described as providing practical strategies and new frameworks for leading with authenticity and self-mastery, which really spoke to me.
Joel Davis Brown: A lot of the skills that I think leaders need to embody are things that I frankly did not see, particularly when I practiced. It was my experience in law firms in the legal field that inspired me to start my firm and to think about how we could build a new generation of leaders and also build more heart-centered and people-centered organizations.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: On our team, transparency and integrity are highly valued. We have seen firsthand through the leadership of our founder that leading with authenticity is not simply a leadership style; it’s an intentional practice that fosters trust, growth, and resilience of our team and our team members. I’m personally excited to speak with you today about leadership and, specifically for our listener base, organizational leadership, what that looks like, and lessons to be learned. Let’s start by laying a foundation around culture.
What defines culture and why does it matter?
Your values determine your culture. What we know is that values are the DNA of who we are, individually and collectively. They represent who you are at your basic level. They speak to your aspirations. They also help to guide your behaviors, norms, and practices if there is alignment. For organizations, it’s important to be intentional about what that culture means.
What sometimes can happen is a culture or an organization can have an idea and say, “Well, these are our values,” but those values need to be translated into behaviors, standards, and metrics, i.e. what does this mean in terms of my day-to-day interactions? How does this govern how I’m going to interact with my coworkers, peers, stakeholders, customer base, and community? The clearer and the more explicit that organizations can make that as well as the willingness of organizations to allow people to engage those values and to bring in their own sensibilities, the more successful they’ll be in creating an organization that is inclusive, equitable, and one that creates a sense of belonging.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: I appreciate what you’ve said about day-to-day interactions. Oftentimes when we think about culture, we think about almost tactical things, like things that we’re going to do to show how great we are as a culture. We’re going to provide snacks in the kitchen for those who are still going into the office or those types of gestures. It’s the day-to-day interactions we have with our colleagues that truly demonstrate the culture of an organization.
What are the traits of a self-actualized leader and how can we adopt them?
The organizations that are employers of choice spend probably more time focusing on the internal dynamics than they do the external dynamics. In doing so, what does that mean? That gets into your question of developing self-actualized leaders. A self-actualized leader is one who is able to realize their full potential. They’re in the process. They’re on the journey of not only shortening the gap but making sure that there’s alignment between what they say, who they say they want to be, and how they actually show up in their environment.
It’s important for leaders to understand that in order to lead others, you have to lead yourself. That again comes back to understanding your values, your mission, your purpose, your talents, and how you can use those talents in an authentic way in order to be your best self. It means showing greater commitment to those values. It means having the ability to examine oneself and take self-inventory.
It also means having a growth mindset, which means that when you encounter new situations and new people, which we do inevitably every single day, you look at that contact point and say, “What is it that I can learn here? What is it that I can learn in the moment when I’m engaging with someone from a different background? What is it that I can learn from this different circumstance? What is it that I can learn within this container, what is there that I can use to be better, and what are the things that I may learn that I want to release in order to reach my full potential?”
That is a constant process. That means engaging in reflection, having open dialogue, and also taking time to talk to a number of different peers, not just the ones who are friends and not just the ones that we are accustomed to, but a number of different people to get that full body view of how am I showing up and what is my impact? It’s important to do that and then commit to taking action steps, because it’s not just about getting information. It is about taking actions, observing what happens in the environment, receiving feedback, reflecting on what you can do differently, and then adapting the behavior. That is the cycle that I think, for many of us, if we can do that, we can actually move forward from a place of stasis to a place of future growth and development.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: You said looking inward versus externally, and I appreciate that because I think for leaders, looking in the mirror and learning from every experience just helps them develop and grow and helps them come back better and lead better within organizations. That feedback is so important when you’re in that moment and understanding what could have gone better or what you could do differently next time.
I had a friend share recently with me an experience with a different culture, and the woman was kind enough to share some really tough feedback. The woman who was in the experience hadn’t received that feedback before and was very grateful for the opportunity to learn, and share that experience with others so that she was growing from a situation that she was in. I appreciate that inward look in the mirror perspective.
Joel Davis Brown: When we think about leadership, we think about leading others, leading a team, leading an organization, and the difficult, the scary, but the very necessary thing is to look within and say, “What is it that I’m bringing to the mix? What are the emotions, the unresolved thoughts and feelings, the traumas? What’s the thought process that I’m going through that perhaps may or may not be helpful in a particular situation, and what can I do about that?”
That’s where I think a lot of schools, philosophies, and a lot of leaders have got it wrong – we’re looking at leadership strictly as an external orientation, instead of realizing that there is a necessary internal dimension. If you don’t lead yourself well, it will be very difficult for you to lead others well consistently. You may be able to get away with it for a day, a month, a quarter, or a season, but generally, people can’t help but be themselves, and whoever you are internally will show up.
My grandfather used to say, “How you do anything is how you do everything.” The way that you show up in one particular area, mainly your personal life, mainly when you are left to your own devices, will surely manifest itself unless you’ve taken the time to do that personal work and to focus on your own development.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: I love that quote by your grandfather. Your comments bring to mind Maya Angelou’s quote, which is, “Now that I know better, I do better.” It sounds like that summarizes what the sentiment is here.
What are the transformational leadership skills that we can learn from the LGBTQ+ community?
So many, and I think it’s worth sharing before we get into that why it is that we can learn these skills from the community. Learning happens in four different environments. Learning happens in school, it happens at work, but it also happens in our families, and it also happens in larger society. We learn the skills, we learn how to survive, and we learn how to navigate different environments. Leadership is something that is born not just out of an athletic field or an academic setting or from an organizational perspective. It can be learned in any particular way.
When we think about leadership and what that means, those of us who are navigating society and are at the margins of society have a particular insight and view and have had to master certain skills, not just to meet a deadline or to provide a deliverable, but just to survive, to make sure we get from one day to the next. The LGBTQ community has been able to do that at great risk of discrimination and bias and sometimes even death. If a community and a group has been able to master these skills in the game that we call life, then think about the value that those can have when the stakes are even lower, but the dynamics and the variables are still very much at play and are still very real.
Those things that the LGBTQ community has been able to highlight and model:
- Nonbinary thinking. Looking at traditions, paradigms, and philosophies and saying, “Maybe our thinking is wrong. Maybe the two alternatives that are being presented to us are not the only alternatives, and maybe we need to go beyond what is before us to say there are different ways of thinking about this particular issue.”
- Creativity. A lot of times when people think of creativity, they think of artwork or being an artist, when creativity is really about creating a new way of doing things, even if it’s built upon a preexisting idea. That could be one dimension or aspect of it.
- Resilience. A lot of times I’ve heard people talk about resilience as if it’s something that can be nurtured and built. I’ve heard people talk about resilience in terms of only certain people have it and some people don’t, or that it’s a superhuman thing. We all have shown resilience at some level. The question is how do you increase that muscle? How do you deploy your resilience in a more intentional way? How do you make sure that you are supporting the resilience of others?
- Somatic awareness. Being keen to our intuition and what’s working and happening within our bodies. The information we get that is important for our environments and our well-being doesn’t just come from our mind. It can come from what’s happening when we experience tightness in our chests, or we feel flow within our bodies, or when we feel some sort of persistent or nagging sense that we’re on the right path or we’re going down the path of disillusionment or moving further away from our goals.
These are the ways in which the LGBTQ community has set and created a prescription for how people can be better and be transformational leaders. My thing is we have leaders in the world and many of them are not doing a good job. I’m interested in those people who want to transform the environment positively. Those are the types of leaders that I think we need. Nonbinary thinking, creativity, resilience, and somatic awareness: those are just four of the things that the queer community brings to the table that help people to think more broadly and more acutely about their leadership style and can help people to be more effective.
Ironically, when you look at what people want from their leaders today in 2023, in terms of relatability, community building, activism, social justice orientation, and those sorts of things, the same things that people are saying are missing for the leaders are things that the LGBTQ community has been able to model and to embrace by virtue of this cultural pathway for quite some time. Then the question becomes, if this group and community uses these things naturally, it behooves us to try to take advantage of that wisdom and leverage it. Not to take advantage of the people, but to leverage the wisdom and to bring it into greater use within our organizations, but also within our society as well.
What is true activism, and how can organizations support the LGBTQIA+ community year-round?
True activism is not performative. True activism is not doing the easy piecemeal thing. It is showing consistent effort, but it comes from a place of higher consciousness. It comes from a place of not just saying, “I’m here to help or save someone else,” but “I’m here because I recognize that that person, that group’s situation, plight, or predicament within the world, is also tied to my own liberation, and what I do and how I show up is also a very clear indicator of what work I have done or need to do.”
What I say to people is, when you’re thinking about being activated or engaging in activism, understand your motivations. Why are you’re doing it? Understand the value system, and understand how what you’re doing can help you to be a better individual. It’s a two-part dynamic of, yes, you want to impact the environment, but you also have to impact yourself.
To the extent that we can be clear about that and go beyond just reciting and recycling things, there are different forms of activism. I don’t want to suggest that everybody has to be in a protest or everybody needs to run for office, but it is important that each of us understand why we’re doing it, what our purpose is, and to use the relative power that we have in the networks and the areas that we have in order to create positive impact.
That could be having a difficult conversation, sharing a piece of information that has not been shared previously, or writing campaigns. It could be any number of things, and it might simply be extending grace to a person or a minoritized person who has never ever felt like they belong or that they’ve been seen. It happens on multiple different levels, and I think sometimes people look at it as one thing or another, and they look at it as an outward sort of dimension or phenomenon instead of saying, “Well, why am I doing this, and what am I learning about myself?”
For example, if I’m thinking about LGBTQ+ inclusion, have I examined my own biases? Have I thought about what my perception of the community is? What am I doing to help tangibly affect the lives of people who are LGBTQ beyond speaking out? Have I made space in my own network? Because the same people who might go out and say, “I am concerned about LGBTQ inclusion,” might not have LGBTQ friends, might not be advocating for people in the workforce, or might have neighbors or family members who they have not taken the time to understand, support, or be a compassionate witness to their journey.
I would say those are the ways in which activism can be expanded. It has to have a personal dimension and has to have a consciousness to it. It has to have a direct link between our mindset and the impact that we want to make on the environment, and that often includes us as well. What are we learning about ourselves and how are we growing as a result of the work that we want to achieve?
How can leaders identify what practices are helping their company culture and what practices can be retired or ended?
I think that comes from having regular conversations, and those “conversations” can either come in the form of one-on-one conversations to say, “Are you seeing results?” and particularly talking to minoritized populations, whether we’re talking about LGBTQ, people of color, women, people with disabilities, religious minorities, et cetera, but speaking to them and saying, “Are you feeling the changes?” It’s one thing for you to have a strategy or an initiative and to say, “We’re doing these great things,” but for the people who it’s designed to help liberate and support, can they feel it?
If they can’t feel it, then there’s a breakdown. There’s a gap that you need to account for. I think it’s important to regularly engage in surveys to understand what the climate and temperature is within the organization, but it’s also important to measure capacity. A survey will measure people’s attitudes. Assessment measures their capacity. The difference is, what is my capacity to do the very things that I’ve been asked to do? If I have as a leader been asked to support an equitable environment, which again goes back to my point about focusing on tangible behaviors, there needs to be some means by which I can assess whether I have the capacity to do certain things.
Most of us when we’re surveyed are going to say, “I’ve done great work. I’m a good person. I support DEIB.” There’s a difference between thinking that and looking at it and assessing to say, “Well, actually, do I show the behaviors and the ability to do this consistently, competently, proficiently, and if not, then what is my baseline and how can I be better?” Companies that focus on that do better when they incorporate these types of measures into performance evaluations. These are part of regular conversations. These are part of the consistent or regular assessments that are taking place, and that helps to move the needle on behaviors within the culture, as opposed to just saying, “Well, what’s the thought and what’s the belief of what’s happening?”
What happens oftentimes is you do surveys and people will share the same information that they’ve shared two and three times before, but nothing has shifted. There has to be some measure for actually giving people individual accountability to say, “What are you going to do that’s going to be different than what you’ve done before?” We don’t want people just recycling phrases and slogans and mantras and saying, “Yes, I’m fully invested and I’m committed.” You have to get some skin in the game to say, “I actually have done something in my individual capacity as a leader to move the organization forward.”
That should be reflected in your team environment, that should be reflected in your work, and that should be something that organizations measure. Then when they do the assessments, the surveys, and the benchmarking, you should be able to see in a number of different categories – “Oh, we’re doing better in recruitment. We’re doing better in retention and advancement. We can see a shift in our marketing efforts, our supplier diversity, our communications, our training programs, or our continued education.”
That’s how you measure that stuff. You can’t do that if diversity, equity and inclusion is just about programming and history month celebrations and history lessons. It has to be tied to people’s actual performance, and it has to be reflected. It should be an indicator of their growth in their leadership positions. If we’re not focusing on that, then oftentimes it sounds good and the diversity measures look good, but they don’t make a true measurable impact. I’ve seen this happen with a number of organizations.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: That’s great feedback and that was very masterfully said, so I don’t want to boil it down, but it goes back to that day-to-day. How are we treating each other day-to-day? What actions are leaders taking to demonstrate that this is really the culture? How are we day-to-day supporting others and advancing their growth and measuring that?
What inspired you to write this book?
My own curiosity. I am a very curious person. Growing up, I was always curious about, “Who am I? Where do I come from?” I come from a number of different communities. I come from the Native American community, I come from the African American or Black community, and I come from the LGBTQ+ community. I would say to you growing up from the Black and the Native American standpoint, the answers were very clear. “This is what it means. This is what we celebrate. This is what we stand for. Here’s where you can go to get more answers.”
It wasn’t that clear from a queer perspective, what it means to be a member of this community. The more I pushed and asked questions and the more I read, what I found was very dissatisfying because a lot of the narratives were sex-based, they were stereotypical, and they were very superficial and trite, even by members of our own community. At some point I said, “Well, I need to investigate this more.” When I was in grad school, that was part of my doctoral research – to do an ethnographic study to understand what this community stands for.
When we look at values, there are often three different layers. Oftentimes, when we’re studying groups, we tend to look at the behavior or what’s sticking above the waterline, the tip of the iceberg, but you have to go deeper. I went deeper and found these values, and I thought that my inquiry would just stop at the values. Then I started looking and I said, “Well, wow. We stand for activism, we stand for inclusion, and we stand for all these wonderful things.” I’m looking at what people are wanting from their leaders. I said, “I actually have stumbled onto something.”
There’s something to be said for understanding your narrative and understanding cultural values, but I realized that the cultural genius we possess is also what’s needed more in the world. That’s when I realized the book I was going to write. Oftentimes when you’re writing a book or you’re engaged in any type of art, what you think you’re doing is not what you’re actually going to do. Then I realized that the direction of my book had to shift, although it certainly helped to clarify and reframe how we look at the community and get a more expansive, comprehensive, and accurate view of it.
It also is a natural byproduct that it helped to position the community as stalwarts and natural leaders that the world needs to pay more attention to. That’s how I got to the book, and I’m so glad I did because it just shows that we can have an intention and a mission, but oftentimes when we start on that mission, the opportunity is much greater than we could have perhaps ever realized.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: It sounds like a beautiful journey and one that was inward-looking, and I appreciate you sharing that journey.
Joel A. Davis Brown
Public speaking: https://joeldavisbrown.com/
Jennifer Simpson Carr