Like everything important in life, the phrase “Black History Month” (BHM) triggers a variety of emotions for people of all races and ethnicities—some positive, some neutral and unfortunately, some negative depending on the person. For me, I see this annual observance in a largely positive light, praising progress while not neglecting the need to understand that there’s room for improvement. Something that I think deserves more attention during BHM is the inherent leadership qualities African-Americans exhibit based purely on their individual upbringings. Before we turn the page and continue with our “regularly scheduled programming” in March, I want to take a moment to share my thoughts on two leadership qualities I believe in as a result of my upbringing—and also to celebrate the 28-day-month that I continue to hold close to my heart.
For some context, growing up in predominately white areas, I was a part of school districts where one could count the number of black students on one hand. Unfortunately, this meant I always felt this uncomfortable pressure—like an elephant in the room—especially once Black History Month rolled around. Every year, teachers would spotlight the same black icons, give the same overview of systematic oppression and then wrap up the month by sharing a brief overview of the 13th Amendment. It all sounds nice until year-after-year I would look around the classroom and notice other students giving me the side-eye as words such as “slavery” and “negro” flew around the classroom. Nevertheless, I would always remind myself, “they don’t know any better, Drake.” Who was to blame?
My father worked hard to ensure my siblings and I did not grow up in the same atmosphere as he did as a child—one where advancement opportunities were limited, career paths weren’t as clear cut and adult supervision was sparse. My siblings and I grew up in the suburbs, enrolled in a highly praised educational system and our playtime being carefully and safely monitored under the watchful eye of our parents and neighbors as we played wiffle ball or enjoyed the luxury of a gated community pool. My father made sure that our upbringing paved the way to a successful future, regardless of the societal pressures we would feel.
My mother, on the other hand, was always vocal–continuously reminding me that I wasn’t like the rest of the boys and girls I associated myself with. She always made it clear that the color of my skin was something to take tremendous pride in, but to never forget the chip that would remain on my shoulder forever. “Drake make sure your pants are always pulled up all the way. Drake don’t blast the music in the car when you’re driving. Drake, if you get pulled over, keep your hands on the steering wheel.” I could rattle these off endlessly. When I was younger, it bothered me to have to be so “on-guard” and mindful of my actions so as to not be stereotyped. As I’ve matured, I’ve slowly realized that my mother was right to instill this mindfulness in me.
I thank my parents endlessly for the ways they led our family and how they have informed the way that I lead teams. Their patience, transparency, ability to contextualize societal pressures and overall desire to want to change the narrative for their kids all taught me good judgment and how to be mindful of people who may be barriers to my success. My parents’ wisdom is a testament to my character today and to my professional career—most prominently regarding how I contextualize pressure and consider the perspectives of others.
In our line of work, it’s critical for us to consider diverse perspectives—both our colleagues and our clients. I think we can always do a better job putting into perspective the pressures others might be dealing with in order to educate others and lead teams. In particular, during Black History Month, think about the adversity that people like my father, people of color or other minorities have battled over the course of history. While we’re thinking about new business presentations, client meetings or performance reviews, some people may be focused on making enough money to avoid that eviction notice, ensuring their family has food to nourish their bodies or trying to get approved for a student loan that allows them to advance their education. That is true pressure.
In my opinion, perspective drives leadership in this industry. If someone can take a step back and see the bigger picture and others’ considerations, then transparently leading teams becomes routine. At APCO Worldwide, I see this leadership daily from my colleagues and I’m constantly inspired to learn and follow their footsteps.
Sure, even today, there are black children dreading Black History Month school lessons and parents still having to resort to scare tactics to open their kids’ eyes to reality. There are still stories about experiences of unconscious tokenism in the workplace and people who want to do better, but don’t quite know how. But for me, even in the most divisive of times, I feel more energized than ever to push these conversations beyond February.
I’ve stopped feeling like the elephant in the room; I feel included. I feel comfortable in my own skin and I feel blessed to be both a part of a legacy of black icons who were strong enough to find beauty in the struggle and part of a company where I work with, and see people who look like me in positions of power.
Looking forward, I envision a world where I won’t have to remind my children the potential consequences of being black. A world where diversity is infused in both suburban and urban communities. And a world where instead of similarities, differences serve as the glue that binds our country. But until then, I will continue to seek the small seed of triumph in every adversity.