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DEI Leadership Lessons from Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court Nomination


Mar. 12, 2022 Kellogg Insight

And while many leaders are unapologetic about having no intention to drive even a modicum of meaningful change, there are countless others who truly support DEI in their heads and hearts but are sheepishly paralyzed in practice—leaders who deeply struggle with making the transition from well-intentioned believer to high-impact builder.

For such leaders—and for all of us—President Biden’s historic nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to become the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court is particularly instructive. If confirmed, Jackson would be only the eighth person to sit on the Supreme Court bench who was not a white man since the Court’s establishment in 1789. Biden, who has consistently signaled his commitment to use his presidential power to advance DEI, promised to nominate a Black woman to the Court in the event of a vacancy—and, to his credit, he followed through. Biden’s handling of Jackson’s groundbreaking nomination offers three practical lessons that can help leaders to get unstuck and, ultimately, better connect their creeds and their deeds. 

Be precise with what “diversity” means in your context 

One aspect of Biden’s approach to this Supreme Court nomination process that was as courageous as it was controversial is the precision with which he declared what “diversity” would look like in this case – namely, that he intended to diversify the Court by adding a Black woman. Without any context, the word “diversity” simply refers to our human differences, whether based on race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, religion, ideology, age/generation, or other factors; it does not expressly refer to particular types of people or assume a particular status hierarchy of haves and have-nots. But in the context of corporate DEI, “diversity” is most often used as an imprecise, catch-all category referring to all of the have-nots who are most often underrepresented in the executive ranks – individuals from a wide array of stigmatized, marginalized, and historically disadvantaged groups. Though politically correct, this imprecision often forestalls meaningful action because progress requires strategic acuity and tactical specificity. If Black and Hispanic women, for example, are not represented in senior management, leaders should say as much in addition to espousing a general commitment to “diversity.” 

When committing to increase “diversity,” there can be wisdom in explicitly naming what “diversity” means in a particular context because it can force a sober analysis of which groups have been underrepresented, why, and what can be done to solve for the exclusion. After all, you cannot fix what you are unwilling to face. Ambiguous executive commitments to “diversity” may make for great soundbites, but alone, they rarely fuel measurable progress. To be sure, adopting a generic pro-diversity stance may be easier for leaders than articulating a specific vision of what diversifying their organizations will look like in clear, observable terms. And yet, summoning the clarity and courage to speak with precision can be key in helping leaders gain the traction to accelerate their DEI impact. The road to lasting change begins with a willingness to commit to a vivid picture of the organization’s current state and precisely what “diversity” progress will look like in practice. 

Be Prepared to Combat the “Diversity Equals Deficiency” Myth

Upon the announcement of Justice Breyer’s retirement, President Biden promised to nominate a Black woman with “extraordinary qualifications, character, experience, and integrity” to the High Court. While these qualifiers should have been able to go unspoken, people of color, women, and others from historically underrepresented groups are chronically assumed to be incompetent until proven otherwise. Consequently, efforts to diversify organizations are routinely beset by a single question: whether the organization should hire the “best” available candidate or the “diverse” candidate. This cringeworthy “question” subtly suggests that underrepresented candidates will be inherently deficient because diversity and excellence are somehow opposites. Anyone who’s ever advanced underrepresented talent knows that the presumption of incompetence for “diverse candidates”—not to mention double-minorities like Jackson (who is both Black and a woman)—will be the proverbial elephant in the boardroom. Such thinking is nothing more than a paper-thin façade for a polished prejudice that believes that obstructing DEI progress is in the best interest of ensuring strong organizational performance.

Inaction is a decisive vote cast in favor of preserving the very status quo that DEI efforts are designed to transform.

— Nicholas Pearce

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