The Empty Chair
A reminder about what it means to care
“I swear to the Lord
I still can’t see
Why Democracy means
Everybody but me.” — Langston Hughes, 1943
While there’s been a lot of talk about Democracy lately, leaders at work deal with small-d democracy. Or, a state of society defined by equal rights and privileges.
Simply put, leaders ought to ensure that everyone in their charge is made to feel welcome and included.
In recent years, this leadership and culture practice has been given an acronymized category: DEI, or Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. It’s not some corporate gimmick or trend; it requires empathy and thoughtfulness in how it is executed.
Daniel Gill knows something about inclusion.
When Daniel was growing up in the Washington Heights section of New York City, he experienced something that would stay with him for decades.
Daniel was invited to a birthday party in his apartment building when he was nine years old, and he decided to invite his friend Archie.
They rang the bell, and when the door opened, the mother of the birthday boy looked at Daniel, and then at Archie, who was Black.
“We have no more chairs,” she said.
Daniel was confused. He had been to this apartment many times and had seen plenty of chairs in it. He said he would gladly sit on the floor or go get more chairs, but the response was “There’s no more chairs.”
Daniel slowly realized that he was welcome but Archie was not, because he was Black.
The boys handed over the presents and left in tears.
Years later, Daniel Gill became a social studies teacher in the Montclair school system and helped with its desegregation. And in doing so, he remembered that incident with his friend Archie — with a small but significant symbol.
Gill keeps an empty chair in the center of his classroom. For a very specific reason.
“I put a chair in my classroom so that anybody who comes to my classroom filled with anticipation, like a party, would feel welcome.”
He keeps it there so students “know this is an accepting place. When they forget that, I point to the chair,” he said.
Isn’t that the job of a leader? To make everyone feel welcome?
The challenge is that everyone has blind spots due to their own background. We can’t all experience the world the way every other person has.
And so, the decent leader gets the input of other executives and employees, putting together different perspectives like pieces of a puzzle.
And having someone represent DEI isn’t checking a box or hewing to a trend. Being inclusive is simply showing that you care.
Inclusivity means everyone matters.
The empty chair reminds us of that.
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In a recent episode of the Timeless Leadership podcast, Dan Pontefract shared lessons from his book that outlined why caring is at the center of good leadership. Put it on your playlist:
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.