The Compelling Call to Listen

June 9, 2020 LRN Corporation

Corporate, institutional, and government leaders from all corners offered up words, statements, and pledges of action in response to the brutal murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the demonstrations that ensued across the U.S.


Those responses were received in a range of ways–as inspiring, thought-provoking, appreciated, as well as insincere or self-serving. One message from a number of leaders may stand out from others and ultimately change behavior or thinking. 


It was the call to listen–to listen to and to internalize what the protesters are saying, to what black people and other minorities have been saying all along about how they are being treated and what their lives are like.


Ultimately, though, listening is not enough, and all these organizations that issued statements will be judged on their actions, not their words. And that is as it should be.


Still, a number of chief executives and other leaders delivered the “listen” message in their statements, either directly or indirectly.


Jide Zeitlin, CEO of Tapestry, which owns the Coach, Kate Spade, and Stuart Weitzman brands, said it didn’t matter that much if stores were vandalized, as merchandise and windows can be replaced. 


“I focus on the cause. What is it that was the underlying issue that caused people to step out into the street to protest, to take the steps that they took?” Zeitlin, who is black, said on “Good Morning America.”


Addressing physical destruction of property, he said, “The losses that we suffer there are minimal relative to the, frankly, broader losses that society is suffering from and from the loss of life that so many families are suffering from. And that’s what’s key.”


Manny Maceda, CEO of consulting firm Bain & Company, said in a letter on the firm’s home page: “Each of us share the anguish that we feel for our world…we clearly need to do more but for now, we must all listen more, not seek to rationalize through our own experiences but rather through the lens of those who are hurt and frightened for themselves and their families.”


A Bain competitor, Boston Consulting Group, through a LinkedIn post by its CEO, Rich Lesser, suggested a similar pause to really take in the magnitude of the problem society continues to face. 


“A country where being Black means one cannot feel fully safe to go for a run or go bird-watching, or even just to live a normal life in one’s community,” he said. “Where the vast majority of law enforcement may be well intended but due to our inability to root out institutional racism, a subset still represent a potential threat, and where Black adults and children feel anxiety that never seems to go away–anxiety related to health, to justice, to personal safety and the safety of friends and family, and a deeper anxiety on whether and when this will actually start to get better. 


“There are no words I can offer to soothe this pain or relieve this anxiety,” said Lesser. “I struggle to retain my normal sense of optimism about when and how we can rebuild from the damage of recent weeks and truly move to a more just world. Faced with this intractable problem, we also cannot stand still.” 


Craig Arnold, CEO of Eaton, the multinational industrial company, asked rhetorically how things might be different if someone were to have listened to George Floyd. Arnold, who is black, said, “Just imagine for a moment that you were one of the police officers on the scene the day that George Floyd died. And when he said, ‘I can’t breathe,’ you did what should have been done. You intervened and put a stop to it.


“Where would we be today? Maybe still dealing with protests in the streets of major cities, maybe not. At minimum, we would have one less senseless loss of life.”


Finally, the “listening” imperative also came through clearly as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded to a question about events last week in the U.S. After a very long, almost speechless, pause, Trudeau said, “It is a time to listen. And it is a time to learn.”

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