Leading with Dignity in Times of Crisis
After spending two decades facilitating dialogues for some of the world’s most intractable conflicts (Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland, Colombia, Sri Lanka, US/Cuba, Libya to name a few), one day I had the startling realization that I might have uncovered a missing link in my understanding of conflict. Why was it that parties could not sign on to an agreement, even if it was obviously in their interest to do so? Something else was going on that prevented them from putting the past to rest. I asked myself, what were we missing?
What we were missing had nothing to do with the political issues that divided them. What we were missing was how human beings predictably react to being treated as if they didn’t matter. We have a hard time letting go of discrimination, injustice, and humiliating and dehumanizing treatment. What I woke up to was that this was about their dignity. This was about enduring chronic assaults to their sense of worth and the rage and resentment that built up over time as a result.
It didn’t take me long to realize that I had to write about the role dignity (or indignity) was playing in these conflicts. Two books later, I realized that if we were ever going to see an end to these disputes, leaders had to be made aware of the powerful role dignity plays in all our lives, not just those of people engaged in intractable conflicts. We all want to be treated with dignity, and when we are not, we suffer. When we are, we flourish. Leaders need to leverage this simple truth about what it means to be human.
I made inroads into the corporate world, helping leaders develop dignity consciousness, enabling them to address some of the sources of toxicity in their workplaces. As it turns out, dignity violations ran rampant in many of the organizations in which I consulted. Big surprise? Not really. One employee I interviewed said to me, “Dignity violations? Sucking them up is part of my job description.”
Under normal circumstances, before our world was turned upside down by Covid-19, learning about dignity and adding it to the everyday behavior of leaders was critical if they wanted a culture that brought out the best in people. Now, given the pandemic we are are facing, understanding dignity is more important than ever.
I love this quote attributed to Charles Darwin:
“It is not the strongest of our species that survives nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
In these turbulent times, what kind of change is necessary? Leaders cannot depend on technical fixes to address what is most needed. They have to show their people that they are able to connect with them, by honoring their dignity. Even though they cannot control the external circumstances of the pandemic, they can demonstrate empathy, showing their people that they care. They can seek deeper understanding of what people are going through (all the challenges of working remotely while homeschooling children, and so on). Perhaps more than anything, leaders need to show vulnerability by speaking the truth and not covering things up if they make a mistake. Take responsibility for your actions. Model dignified behaviors. It is imperative that leaders maintain complexity and not try to oversimplify what is happening. People prefer to be told the truth, and vulnerability is where the truth resides.
All of the behaviors described above create an emotional infrastructure within organizations where people feel safe to speak up about what is really going on in their lives. As an added bonus, these behaviors also promote trust. Trust has to be earned and when people feel that leaders are treating them with dignity, trust follows naturally. On the other hand, when they feel their dignity is violated, trust is the first thing to go.
People are yearning for this kind of leadership. They want to feel safe, comforted and protected in times of crisis. No technical fix will begin to address human needs in the way that people are expecting from their leaders. The time has come to focus on what really matters—our relationships and our ability to feel the kind of comfort that authentic human connections provide.
Sadly, leaders don’t learn this in professional schools, but the time is now to take the way we treat one another seriously. It matters. While we are all born with dignity, we’re not born knowing how to act like as if that were true. Give learning about dignity the time and attention that it deserves. It is a powerful antidote to the fear, uncertainty and instability that we are all facing. Knowing that we have someone watching our backs, caring about what we’re going through, treating us as if we matter, makes these turbulent times bearable. We also come to realize that by honoring each other’s dignity, we strengthen our own. We look good when we treat people well. We are also creating a human connection that is held together by something else we are all yearning for: love. What is love if not the mutual honoring of each other’s’ dignity? It is the only true antidote to the fear, uncertainty and world-rocking instability that we are all experiencing.
I’ll end with another of my favorite quotes, this one by Victor Hugo:
“There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”
Dignity’s time is now.
Copyright © 2020 Donna Hicks
Dr. Donna Hicks is an Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. She facilitated dialogues in numerous unofficial diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Colombia, Cuba, Libya and Syria. She consults to corporations, schools, churches, and non-governmental organizations. Her book, Dignity: It’s Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, was published by Yale University Press in 2011. Her second book, Leading with Dignity: How to Create a Culture That Brings Out the Best in People, was published by Yale University Press in August 2018.