Seven Leadership Lessons for Minorities (And Everyone Else)

What they don’t teach at school, but probably should.

This year, I’d like to discuss leadership — not just why our leaders are failing (yawn), but what it means to be leaders in our own lives. Especially for those of us who are told that we’re different, peculiar, misfits…those of us who don’t quite fit in, who stick irksomely out, who can’t meld neatly into the pack.

Let me introduce you to Kevin. Kevin’s the Average Guy. He’s not any of the following: gay, poor, an immigrant, brown, black, Asian, disabled, sick, unhealthy. He’s not remarkable, or probably even interesting, in any way. But he is already fortunate, in the most naive terms — though he probably doesn’t know it, or wouldn’t believe it should you tell him — because he does not have to struggle with being different. He fits in by virtue of birth. And thus, society, the many who when averaged define the normal, confers on Kevin the many advantages of being part of the majority: trust, civility, respect, quiet understanding, and what those amount to in the real world — higher pay, more, better, bigger opportunities, and a significantly higher quantity and quality of life than those who are Not Kevin.

I’m sure that some of you are already Grade A Internet Outraged at my little portrait of Kevin. Ironically, that’s probably because you are Kevin. Listen. It’s OK to be Kevin. I don’t have anything against him; I don’t begrudge him his good fortune. In fact, I wish him all the best. He’s not my enemy nor ally, neither my adversary nor friend. He’s just a part of the world that we all live in, contend with, and must learn to make our places in.

I’m going to use Kevin (and Not Kevin) to help us derive a few principles for leadership especially for minorities: those who are Not Kevin. Here’s the first.

You have to be 3-5x times better… Go ahead and quantify it if you like — that’s the simplest and best way to understand it. Signing a three million dollar deal, instead of a million dollar deal. Not just getting three papers published in average journals — but nine in the best. Not just getting a 4.0 GPA — but taking three times as many advanced classes and then getting a 4.0 GPA. Networking with three times as many people who are three times as accomplished for three times as long. And so on.

…Just to have a chance at the payoff. Kevin doesn’t have to “work as hard” as you — that’s a truism. But here’s what that means in real life. If he signs the million dollar deal, Kevin gets the promotion, bonus, corner office. If he publishes the papers in an average journal…Kevin gets tenure. If Kevin scores the 4.0 GPA, he gets the acceptance, scholarship, award, admission. If Kevin networks for a month, he gets a job offer. If you do all the above, you don’t get the payoff that Kevin is assured of. You merely get a chance at the same payoff that Kevin is assured of. The key word is chance: you get a shot — often just a glimmering, tantalizing possibility — at the promotion, bonus, tenure, admission.

Let’s put that slightly more formally. You assume more risk for the same level of accomplishment: that is what it means to say that you have to “work harder”. There are no guarantees for you. It’s unfair, maddening, unjust, atrocious, terrible, immoral. But it’s also reality. So here is the point. No matter how tempting it may be, you must not treat a setback as defeat. Don’t get frustrated, don’t give up, don’t throw your hands up in the air and accept defeat just because it hasn’t happened yet — the job, promotion, admission, bonus, etc. Self-pity over setbacks is human, but it isn’t just foolish — it is a sign that you are missing the key lesson of failure entirely. Let it teach you: you are going to have to think more wisely about what accomplishment really means, and how it happens, if you want to rebalance this equation of ruin…instead of letting it ruin you.

Here’s how to begin making things happen…better.

The Kevin Principle. Let’s examine the relationship between success and prosperity for Kevin. Let’s say Kevin’s successful — his accomplishments excel, beat the norm, exceed the average. He signs the three million dollar deal, he publishes three papers in a good journal, he gets the 4.0 GPA, etc. What happens?

Success yields prosperity: respect, security, stability, career, savings, a desirable home, car, etc. What about mediocrity? Normality, an average life: average home, car, bank account, etc. And failure? Struggle: renting vs homeownership, little savings, a job not a career, probably broken relationships because of all the above.

But that relationship does not hold for you. Here’s what the relationship between success and prosperity is like if you’re Not Kevin. Success? Average life: average home, car, income, career, etc. Mediocrity? Struggle: renting vs homeownership, little savings, a series of jobs, not a career, broken relationships, etc. Failure? Don’t even ask, you’re done.

Let me say it again, because this is a relationship so central that I wish you to always keep with you. Let us call it the Kevin Principle. Kevin’s life. Success? Prosperity. Mediocrity? Normality. Failure? Struggle. Yours. Success? Normality. Mediocrity? Struggle. Failure? Don’t even think about it.

See how the relationship has been downgraded at each point? You are on a different curve. Here’s the harsh truth: at every stage of life’s journey, your payoff is less than Kevin’s for the same level of accomplishment.

Don’t aim for success. Revolutionize it. What does the Kevin Principle tell us? You must not struggle merely for success. Success alone is never going to be enough for you, for it will not grant you the same kind of prosperity that it does Kevin. Even if you are successful, the most you can achieve is normality. So if you aim for the same level of accomplishment as Kevin, you are simply ensuring yourself a life of frustration, bitter anger, and a burning sense of injustice that drives you to seethe at your wife, kids, and friends, because you never quite feel worthy in the first place.

You must struggle to redefine success. Here is what I mean. Instead of signing a three million dollar deal, your goal should be a thirty million dollar deal. Instead of writing a few papers in decent journals, your goal should be to write a series of papers, or a book, that forever changes the foundations of the field. Instead of a 4.0 GPA in AP classes, your goal should be starting (and finishing) college early.

I don’t mean that you must accomplish all that. But I do mean that you must at least aim for it. Because you are on a lower life curve than Kevin, you must adjust your own ambitions upwards — simply to compensate. For the harsh truth is that if you merely achieve as much as Kevin, you will win a life that is in every way, materially, socially, culturally, and emotionally, inferior. So your ambition must be to revolutionize the very definition of success if it is prosperity that you want.

Find a better mountain. You might think that putting all the above into practice would be all you have to do to best Kevin — or at least put yourself on par with him. You’d be wrong. Here’s why. It’s inevitable that if you are Not Kevin, and if you take all the above seriously, that you will hit a glass ceiling. It doesn’t matter when, or where. Nor why — for the reason is always the same: you’re just Not Kevin enough.

What is a glass ceiling — really? It is not just an obstacle to be desperately, wearily, furiously overcome, though that is what we often and usually suppose that it is. It is a message to be heard. A sure, clear sign that you are being taken for granted, little valued, by an organization, a set of people, to whom you have likely already contributed more than you have justly been rewarded for.

Hence, the way to defeat glass ceiling isn’t trying to break it open by beating your head against it. For while it may eventually give way — so will you. The battle will likely cost you all that has been good and noble in you, precisely because you will have internalized the message that you are less valuable to begin with.

The right and good way to handle hitting a glass ceiling is simply to climb down the ladder, walk away, and find a better mountain to climb. You must at that precise moment that you hit a glass ceiling not merely find in yourself the cold determination of anger, the pulsing fury of rage — you must have the quiet courage, great wisdom, and boundless defiance to walk away, and find a group of people who are prepared to value you for what you are truly worth.

The truth is that this is the first great step you must take in the journey to selfhood. To leave the sheltering arms of places that you once called home. For no home that is a prison is worth living in. You must always treasure your freedom more than your safety — because for you safety is precisely the glittering illusion that is used to keep you docile and fearful.

You will be judged by your worst self, not your best self. The danger is that all this — the journey of seeking not just excellence, but to finding excellence, of finding better and better mountains to climb, can come to poison us. That the weight and burden of its ceaseless struggle can embitter our hearts, and leave us not just weary — but cynical, angry, jaded, wearing stone masks of cold detachment to cover up our disappointment, exhaustion, bitterness, and frustration.

And that is the next, and greatest, kind of failure. Kevin receives the benefit of the doubt in every situation. Should he express anger, or fear, or lash out, he is probably just “having a bad day”. But you will not be judged so: you will be held to a different standard. Express anger, fear, lash out, and you will be called “difficult”, “unreliable”, “and so on”. Kevin is judged by his best accomplishments. But you will be judged by your worst moments. You must always remember that, so that you do not slip, falter, fray. Kevin’s bad moments are forgotten, brushed under the rug, swept into the dustbin of history. But yours will always be with you. They will be used as ammunition by your enemies, evidence by your rivals, and bait by your trolls. So you must strive to minimize them in the first place.

You will be judged by your worst self, not your best self. I say it again because I hope that you will remember it in your moments of anger, fear, despair, rage, fury, bitter frustration.

Therefore, it is not enough simply to accomplish more. You must also be a better person. You must cultivate to a higher degree the fundamental human qualities of compassion, forgiveness, mercy, rebellion, intelligence, wisdom, grace. And you must express all of those at every opportunity you get. For if you do the opposite, and allow your lesser emotions to shine darkly through, it is inevitable that you will tarred with them, no matter the breadth of your accomplishments. Therefore, you must learn to be vastly more graceful, eloquent, merciful, grateful, kind, humane, courageous, wise — despite the fact that the poisonous struggle against injustice will threaten to embitter you from those qualities every single day that you see it, know it, live it.

I have written here many harsh truths — too many, and probably too much too openly for my own good.

But all I am really saying to you is this.

You must learn to be a leader. Kevin can choose the path of least resistance, safety in conformity, comfort in mediocrity, a life lived by the rules. But you do not have the choice — for in that choice for you lies not safety, but defeat.

Your obligation, instead, is this. You must break new ground, plow unseen fields, reap fresh harvests. You must redefine, reinvent, revolutionize, reimagine. For if you only follow, you will surely be shoved to the back of the pack, no matter how strong or determined or fierce you may be.

I hope that you understand me. In every aspect of your life, mediocrity will not yield you the average: it will yield you only the bitter fruit of frustration, futility, injustice. Therefore, in every aspect of your life, you must not settle merely for mediocrity. Yet nor you must not merely excel. You must do better than excellence. You must transform what excellence means entirely. You must not just raise the bar — you must set it. You must not just win the race, nor set a new record — you must reimagine how to run. You must not merely accomplish more — you must define what accomplishment is, while ensuring that doing so does not cost you your very self.

That is what it means to be a leader. And the simple fact is this. Those of us who are told, time and time again, that we are not normal, regular, or average, that we are different, peculiar, abnormal, atypical, might do well not to scream, object, or shout, but to listen. Not because doing so means that we are lesser, diminished, or reduced. But because it asks us to set the very standard that defines what normal comes to mean. Let us accept the challenge of being standard bearers, who, precisely because we are not normal, have the freedom to define what excellence and accomplishment, grace and beauty, truth and wisdom, may truly mean. There is surely danger there. But there is also the exhilaration and beauty of an endless horizon.

Those of who are born different are the truly privileged ones. For it is our calling to live truly exceptional lives. While we may damn the weight of the burden, let us also give thanks for the gift.

December 2015