Donald Trump is Forcing White Male Leaders to Step Up


Mr. Trump may play the super-hero for angry white men. But his anti-human ethic is now forcing a hard set of choices upon white guys who lead for a living. We increasingly feel the pressure to step forward as inclusive leaders, because Trump is tearing apart our quiet, normative space.

I was talking with a black woman recently – she is a successful executive, a lovely person, and a trusting friend. She surprised me with this empathetic observation: “I feel badly for white male leaders this year. They can’t hide anymore from the expectations of followers who want courageous leaders.”

She touched a pressure point I personally feel as a white male leader, but had not yet identified to myself. So, dumb me, I asked her to say more, and part of me wishes I hadn’t, because she has an alarming tendency toward candor. She went on: “This year people want their male leaders to stand up and show some balls, to lead with care and integrity and bravery, because Trump is confusing leadership with bullying. Like when he blames Secretary Clinton for her husband’s moral failings, and cold-heartedly re-victimizes her. Trump is making it impossible for white male executives – at least those who claim to be inclusive leaders – to stay quiet about diversity, every time he insults and patronizes women, goes after Mexicans and Muslims, mocks the disabled, and claims to know nothing about white supremacy. Seems like there’s nowhere to hide for white male leaders this year.”

Wow. Ouch. I’m seeing fellow white guys feel the heat from Trump’s hot air. The pain point isn’t about partisanship or even about policy. It’s about character and tone and respect and inclusion. So colleagues who are not white men want to hear us disassociate from such exclusive values. More importantly, they want to see white male executives improve leadership behaviors to find and grow and keep talent, and build the customer connection in a diversifying and global marketplace.


So what can we do?

Step One: Find your nerve and admit that it’s collusion to keep quiet, in the face of this year’s unrelenting exclusion.

Dr. King said: “Our lives begin to end the day we become quiet about things that matter.” The people we lead watch us every day, and they decide: ‘Is he with me, is he part of the solution?’ Or …  if our people don’t believe we are for them, they may well decide that we are part of the problem, against them. The neutral ground – where we don’t get in trouble around diversity but we also don’t have to develop a point of view – is dropping away under our feet like a sinkhole.

Step Two: Explore the haunting reality that we do not define our own leadership brand.

The White Men’s Leadership Study reported on the effectiveness gap, which is the difference between how we as white men rate ourselves as inclusive leaders, and how colleagues who are not white men rate us. On selected competencies, this e-gap was typically more than twenty points. Our leadership brand is determined by the decisions our people make about following us, and when we don’t build in feedback loops to grow our brand, our careers falter and our results stall.

Step Three: Listen, Talk, Decenter. Repeat.

What does this look like? It’s the heart of what will happen at the June 6th Forum on Engaging Men, Advancing Women in San Francisco. You want to see companies with courage? The Forum’s sponsors include Charles Schwab, CSAA Insurance, PwC and Cisco. The Forum convenes business-relevant and respectful conversations among male and female executive peers. As such, the Forum offers the antidote to the leadership approach of Donald Grump.

Decentering is listening to others with care, and stepping back as an opportunity for our colleagues to find their voice and build their credibility. Again, decentering is not exactly a competency Trump demonstrates. So it will be even more powerful when we step up by stepping back.

Step Four:  Create opportunity with fierce discipline. 

Deliver on the practices of inclusive leaders. Here are ten:

  • Innovate business metrics (beyond headcount) t0 drive revenue growth, cost containment, and process improvement
  • Develop an ally strategy in support of every employee resource group
  • Insist on diverse pools to source great talent
  • Interview candidates with diverse selection panels
  • Recognize and reward individuals with cultural savvy
  • Provide corrective feedback equitably (no fear of tears or anyone playing ‘race’ or ‘gender’ cards)
  • Diagnose and close pay equity gaps
  • Examine and root out ways unintentional bias creeps into job assignments, performance appraisals, and promotion decisions
  • Strengthen mentoring and sponsorship practices
  • Improve leadership skills in resolving diversity-related conflict


Are you a white man who leads for a living? Right now Donald Trump’s highly-visible selfishness and arrested social development corrode the way many people view us as white men. The way Trump behaves and speaks is damaging your brand as an inclusive leader.

Your only way forward: step up with courage and show people in your organization what an inclusive white male leader looks like.