The Sum – Meaning of the Week: Crossroads

“The first responsibility of leadership is the creation of meaning.”—Warren Bennis.

Word of the week is CROSSROADS.

As in a junction where two or more roads meet, offering the traveler multiple paths.

As in an intersection, a point at which a crucial decision must be made that will have far reaching consequences (yep, I googled this one – small clue about my inspiration).

As in the moral crossroads of leadership. Where Google CEO Sundar Pichai stands at this moment.

I’ve spent days now obsessed with Google’s current crossroads. Engineer James Damore’s manifesto challenging the value of efforts to achieve diversity and inclusion, gender inclusion in particular, has inflamed an already tense environment. Read it closely and you’ll see that Damore’s “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” is a classic reactionary justification of the socially constructed status quo framed as biological determinism. Sort of like those who used to claim women were not emotionally suited to vote, and shouldn’t play full court basketball because their reproductive organs might fall out.

As someone who eats and sleeps research on the topic in order to teach women how to embrace their power to set higher intentions for themselves and successfully reach them, I found the screed (yes, I read every word and reviewed the largely undocumented graphs) rife with implicit and explicit biases, torqued logic, and factual errors declared with the arrogant certainty of privilege.

I have three conclusions: 

  1. James Damore is a loner and perhaps a fabricator of truth, who might have been acting alone but quickly became the darling of the reactionary altRight. If his memo was written in the solitude he apparently treasures, he is now surrounded with sycophants who can supply a battery of smart lawyers and media managers.
  2. Google CEO Sundar Pichai did the right thing though some think in the wrong way and without organizing his own battery of supporting voices sufficiently at the getgo. He can fix that fast if he leads decisively and courageously.
  3. And finally, the women of Google and the high tech culture overall, owe thanks to both of these men for cracking open a controversy that if turned into a meaningful conversation can lead to positive change. This is where Pichai’s leadership at the moral crossroads can turn a mess into a message that pushes the fulcrum toward gender parity in a big way.

Let me back up and give some context in case you haven’t been as obsessed as I am with the story.

And for sure this week’s news out of Google was a story, long waiting to happen. Not because Google is a bad company but because it is one of the best.  Google is about average among tech companies: 75% of its leadership (with an unusually high 46% of its executive team female) and 69% of overall workforce are male and largely pale. “A diverse mix of voices leads to better discussions, decisions, and outcomes for everyone,” Sundar Pichai declares on their website’s diversity page, where the company pledges to do better.

Clearly what constitutes “better” is disputed by Damore and his disaffected ilk; those in power – let’s face it – do not relinquish their privilege easily. On the other side, women and many men—eloquently represented by former Googler Yonatan Zunger and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki— too see males like Damore as woefully ignorant of basic cognitive research on gender, not to mention the unassailable business case that more women generally correlate with higher profits for companies.

And while we all treasure our freedom of speech and belief, women can’t help but wonder: how many others think the same way as Damore? Are they sitting at the next desk?  Do they weigh in on our evaluations? Are they judging my ever word and move through that biased lens? Concerns such as these squelch creativity and contribute to a toxic workplace.

This puts Pichai squarely at that moral crossroads of leadership. where he must choose from among imperfect paths, usually with too little time and too little information for certainty. He had to return from vacation out of the country, and soon issued a statementexplaining why he had fired Damore.  No, he said, it wasn’t that Google doesn’t want its employees to express their thoughts, but that the memo violated the Code of Conduct at Google. The old example of “yes you have free speech but that doesn’t extend to the freedom to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” applies here. When your speech hurts the company and its other employees, there are limits.

Lawsuits will decide exactly what those limits are in this case. Those lawsuits have chilled Google’s ability to make public statements and my guess is why they abruptly cancelled the all-call town hall scheduled for last night.

Geekwire lays out the specific cultural challenges for Google.  I believe we are witnessing something much larger:  the devolution of the brocosystem, the hipper scion of the old boy’s club.  And that will ultimately be a good thing. Which brings me to my third conclusion: women can thank both Damore and Pichai for the controversy that opens up a sorely needed conversation.

The clash of controversy, if used well, can create new social realities. Learning to walk into the wave of controversy and ride it where we want to go rather than backing away from it is an important lesson I learned in my four decades on the leadership frontlines. Not just to manage or dodge but embrace controversy.

Think of controversy as a theory of change with 7 “C’s”:

Controversy is the

Courage to risk putting your

Convictions out to the world, because it gets people’s attention. It gives you a platform to present your

Case.  To teach, engage people, define, persuade. Often this causes

Conflicts—the clash of uncertainties—which forces people to

Clarify their values and beliefs, and that leads to sustainable

Change.

Google owes it to its future, its customers, and its employees, to commit intentionally to not just continue but to elevate its commitment to diversity and inclusion. If they play their cards right, they can emerge from this controversy as the model company, one where both women and men will want to work there above all because of its commitment to each of them as human beings with unique skillsets and gifts to contribute to the whole.

So we are back to the word of the week: Crossroads: As in a central meeting place.

As in when the proverbial s**t hits the fan, you hit it head on, be steadfast with your values, and embrace the controversy as an amazing opportunity for change and growth.

Welcome to the Sum, where I share my take on the meaning of sum of the week’s parts. I want your voice too. Leave comments here or @GloriaFeldt


Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

Leave a Reply