Today’s episode is with Anton Gunn. Anton is a former senior advisor to President Barack Obama and the world’s leading authority on Socially Conscious Leadership.
This episode is important because the construct of socially conscious leadership is a perspective that I think would resonate with many organizations around the world.
Anton does a great job tying in how this framework can really support leaders at the individual level as it relates to eradicating toxic workplace behavior.
Listen to the podcast here:
Exploring Awareness And Socially Conscious Leadership With Anton Gunn
This episode is with Anton Gunn. Anton is a former Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama and the world’s leading authority on Socially Conscious Leadership. This episode is important because the construct of socially conscious leadership is a perspective that would resonate with many organizations around the world. Anton does a great job tying in how this framework supports leaders at the individual level related to eradicating toxic workplace behavior.
Welcome to the show. We have Anton Gunn. How are you?
I’m doing fantastic. Good to be with you.
I ran across some of your work in the healthcare industry related to toxic workplaces and leadership. I’m excited to have this conversation with you in particular about the industry of healthcare and things like that. Thank you for being here.
Thank you for having me.
Tell the readers a little bit about yourself and further your journey to becoming an advisor to President Obama.
It’s definitely been a long winding road. The first I always start is for people to understand my family history. I’m a fourth-generation military brat. When I say military brat, literally four generations of men in my family served in the military, all branches of the military, great grandfather, grandfather and my father, all of his brothers, served in the military. However, I didn’t serve in the military. My brother joined the Navy. The main context is that I come from a family where leadership was paramount in everything that we did. I had good and bad examples of leadership. That was my framework for the world.
Healthcare is a right for all Americans.
I’m a former college football player at the University of South Carolina. When I went to college, I thought I wanted to be a school teacher. That was my career path. I wanted to teach eleventh grade US History and I wanted to coach girls’ basketball. Some people said, “Why is that?” I think girls play a better brand of basketball than boys do. It’s more fundamental. I’m a fundamental kind of guy. I ended up not finding a job after college because I had a toxic leadership experience in college football.
It led me to a career in grassroots community organizing. I ended up working for a small nonprofit that hired me to do surveys in the community around how people were being treated at the local hospital or healthcare system. In that conversation, you could imagine those stories that poor people and people are told about how they got treated at the hospital.
I led a big protest march outside of a hospital with patients and family members who were complaining about how the hospital treats patients and the nurses would walk by our picket line and say, “If you think they treat patients bad, you should see the way they treat us.” I said, “What?” The next thing I know is that I’m having a conversation with nursing leaders and nursing executives about how they were experiencing toxic workplace culture in their workplace. That led me to a public policy path where I was changing laws, writing letters to the legislature, and meeting with lawmakers.
I got elected to public office and because I’d been working in healthcare policy for ten years, I got to know people in DC. One of them was a skinny guy from Illinois who wanted to become president of the United States. The next thing I knew, I was helping him to become president, then a couple of years later, I was working for him as he was trying to make healthcare a right for all Americans.
One theme I hear here is the theme of injustice and how you transitioned from working with those in the community and the injustice they faced in the healthcare industry and hearing from nurses within that organizational system. Injustice comes up a lot as a sign related to organizational culture and that’s toxic. You say that injustice in the workplace is the great challenge. It’s a very big challenge faced by nowaday’s leaders. Why do you go that route? Why do you say that?
Let’s use the basic word, unfairness. Every last one of us knows what it feels like to be treated unfairly. We all have experienced it in our lives. Whenever we experience that unfairness, immediately if somebody doesn’t do anything to make it right, that unfairness begun to fester inside of us. It can bring into effect a physiological makeup. It can affect how we look, treat and even lash out at other people. We’re finding more often than not that people experience some level of injustice in the workplace.
Maybe you got downsized and your coworkers got to keep their jobs or got passed over for a promotion that you deserve because you worked hard to get it, but it was given to the boss’s nephew who doesn’t work as hard and not as good as you are. Maybe you show up for a boss who discriminates, disdain or just blatantly disrespects you because they’re dealing with their own toxicity that they bring into the workplace.
It starts very small. It starts as a little bit of stress, fear and then it moves to distrust, resentment, isolation, separation and then resignation. I call those things the eight stages of alienation. Alienation starts at the core of injustice. You become alienated when you experience injustice. Look at anywhere in our society. People have become alienated from so many different things that lead to so many more challenges and that’s at the core of what’s happening in workplaces presently.
Thank you for sharing those stages because that lifts up some red flags or some things that leaders can look for in employee behavior daily beyond like, “Let’s do an engagement survey.” What can we do to actively get involved with people that are feeling like you did when you get your grassroots organizer? How can we have CEOs, HR Departments and chief people officers take a more grassroots approach to the employee experience?
I think you’re right, whether you’re a chief people officer, chief of HR or manage your own department because I don’t think we do a good enough job of helping prepare the manager and supervisor for engaging around and building a good culture. We leave it all on the shoulders of the HR team and the HR team is already overworked, overburdened, don’t have enough staff, don’t have enough resources, but yet they get blamed for every problem when it comes to culture.
Many of these problems are manifested right at the unit level that person who you report up to. People don’t quit organizations and companies. They quit supervisors and managers. I try to give people a basic framework of thinking about, “As a manager, what you should be looking for before you do an employee engagement survey?” These are the same three questions every employee asks.
They may never verbalize these three questions. You may never see them written down on a piece of paper, but I promise you, when somebody shows up to work, they want to know the answer to the three questions. 1) Do you care about me? 2) Will you help me to be successful? 3) Can I trust you? No matter who you are, when you show up to work, you want to know, “Does the person I report to care about me or my wellbeing? Am I able to do my job? Is everything out of the way for me to be successful? Do you even care?”
Alienation starts at the core of injustice.
The second question is, “If you do care, will you help me be successful by taking these impediments and barriers out of the way? Making sure I got the personal protective equipment and all of the things that I need to be able to do my job?” The third question is, “Can I trust you? When things get tough and times get tight, are you going to have my back? Are you going to throw me under the bus?” Every employee is asking those three questions of every manager. They don’t want to know your verbal answer to those questions. They want to see in your actions the answers to those questions.
Day-to-day, as a manager, are you showing the people that you work with that you care? Are you showing the people that you work with that you’re there to help them? Are you showing them how you can be trusted as a leader or a manager? I tell people to start with the basics, showing people you care, you’re willing to help them and you can be trusted.
That’s one of those notions of actions speak louder than words in this case. People are inundated with the words. I think a lot of people are tired of the words, especially as we are looking at the COVID transition back to work and all protective equipment that people have to wear and how organizations have responded. Are you creating this place for me to be safe or are you creating this place to open back up? I’ve had that conversation a lot with leaders. Thank you for sharing those three questions because before you said them, I was like, “Definitely. You said it every day.”
The context is that you got to understand people. A big part of the success of great leadership and building great culture is knowing people. I’ve done some training and been in a lot of training with John Maxwell, a great mentor, business guru, and business leader. He says very clearly and very simply, “People want to know that you care about them and they want to know that you understand them.” It’s not about the hard stuff. It’s around how you communicate with people and how do you show people that you care.
A lot of leaders become managers or supervisors, and they put on the lens of leading employees when in reality, the lens should be leading people because it actually doesn’t change. People are people.
It’s not only the people piece of it. Another thing that John Maxwell said is that when you get into a leadership position, 87% of your job is focused on people and only 13% of your job is focused on the product or the service in which you know. If you were a doctor, your job is 100% focused on your knowledge of the product, which is the delivery of medicine.
If you get promoted from a doctor to being a manager, director or maybe chief medical officer, you need to know medicine, but your job is to manage the other doctors. You got to know the people side of the house and understanding the context of what it means to manage people. The biggest failures in most organizations are taking the best accountant and making him the manager of accountants.
We take the best doctor and make him the chief medical officer. We take the best at doing the product job and immediately throw them into the management role. Soon, they’re going to be successful because they know the product, but they don’t know what they should know, which is the people. You got to know the people if you want to be successful.
We wonder why those leaders treat people the way they do when you treat them like a task because that’s what we’re good at. They’re good at tasks. Tell me about this notion of socially conscious leadership and why is it important as we look at ending injustice in the workplace? How does that play a part?
Social conscious leadership boils down to your awareness and your actions when you get into a leadership role. There’s this framework I’ve developed called a Social Conscious Construct. When you come into an organization or when you’re inside an organization, you fall along the continuum of the Social Conscious Construct somewhere, which is their two axes. I want you to think about the Y-axis being your awareness. The longer you are in an organization, the more aware you become of injustice and problems in that organization.
The X-axis is your action axis. The longer that you’re in an organization, the more ability you have to take action. I don’t care if you’re a frontline person. When you’ve been around a long-time, you know more than anybody else who’s just been there a short time. You have an incredible amount of ability to take action, whether you’re a leader of influence or a positional leader.
With those two axes, I want you to understand that 50% of people by the bottom quartile of that axis. They have no awareness about problems and they have no ability to take action. You then have 35% of the group of people who are what I call in the middle. They have a little bit of awareness about the problems, but they still don’t take action because they believe that it’s somebody else’s job to fix the problem. When you’ve got 50% of the people who are living in oblivion, they don’t know any better, so they don’t do any better. They don’t know anything is even wrong at work. They just walk around and do that job and they think everything is good.
A big part of the success of great leadership and building a great culture is knowing people.
You then got another group of 35% of people who see the problem every day. “I know Tom is a bad manager. I know that department is screwed up. I know they don’t treat people right over there in finance, but I am not going to do anything about it because I don’t work in finance. I work in operations. What can little old me do something about this problem? Isn’t that HR’s job to fix? Why do I get to be the one to fix it?”
They place the blame of fixing injustice on somebody else. In two groups, we have 85% of people. You then get to the third group, which is a 10%. These are people who are at the top of that Social Conscious Construct. They have the greatest awareness about the problem and the greatest ability to take action, but they also do nothing. As a matter of fact, they reinforce the injustice because they believe that they benefit morally, socially, politically, even financially and economically from allowing the status quo of injustice to maintain.
These are the people who I call the Darth Vaders of the world that they, “I can’t possibly help somebody out of a bad situation because then that might take money out of my pocket.” They focus on leaving things the way they are, leaving the injustice as is because they think they’d benefit from it. These are people who many times are in the C-suite. They say, “I’m a man. That’s a CEO of a hospital and 80% of my workforce is women. I should probably be a champion for gender diversity and leadership, but if I do that then there might be a woman who might replace me, so I’m not going to help a woman get to a leadership role in healthcare because that might cost me my job.”
They operate from a scarcity mindset rather than the abundance mindset. Ninety-five percent of the people who don’t have the social consciousness that they need to transform organizations and build fully inspiring and empowering ones, then there’s the 5%. Those are the people who I teach, train and develop in the B.
These are the leaders who are always aware of injustice. They have a social consciousness because they know how to ask questions. They know how to dive deep and get beyond the surface. More importantly, they find and develop the tools to do something about what’s wrong. They don’t take the excuse that, “This problem has been around for ten years. I can’t do anything to fix that. I can’t do everything, but I can do something to try to make it right.”
More importantly, they’re sold out and committed to finding a way to work and make the organization better. They know that their job is not to just do the job but the job is to make the organization better every day. That’s a Socially Conscious Leader who recognizes, “I see injustice. I’m going to find and get the tools and I’m going to do something about it.” For that 10% who sit at the top who try to keep the status quo, I want to make them uncomfortable in their skin to know that the status quo is no longer acceptable. It takes a lot of courage for you to be a socially conscious leader.
Essentially you got about 95% of people in a system in which 10% are maintaining status quo, but the other 85% are doing nothing at all because they probably don’t even recognize it. By default, why does it sound like 95% are not helping? Why are they bystanders basically, either willfully or unwilfully?
We’re all creatures of our own personal experience. Let me take it away from workplace culture examples. On May 25th, 2020, George Floyd had a knee on his neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds and lost his life. There were so many people in America who were living in oblivion. They were at the bottom of that awareness and action cortex because they had no idea that racial injustice at the hands of police was real. It didn’t become real to them until they saw George Floyd.
They had no awareness of the problem because of their life experience, their race, the community they grew up in, or what they chose to intake into their minds and even their relationships. It wasn’t until that moment that they had some awareness about it. Even when you have awareness, it doesn’t mean you’re going to take action and do something about it because they might’ve made an excuse, “I don’t live in Minnesota. I do nothing about what happened to George Floyd. I’m not a police officer, so I can’t stop police officers from doing those bad things.” They make excuses.
Some of us were well aware of that issue long before. For me, when I was eighteen years old on March 3rd, 1991, I saw Rodney King get beat by four LA police officers 56 times. It validated everything that NWA told me in their music in 1988 and 1989. My awareness started 30-plus years before their awareness started. In every issue in our society, we all fall along this continuum. When you don’t know any better, it’s hard to do better. Some people could say, “Why give him a pass?”
I say, “You can’t hold people accountable for stuff that they don’t know, but you can hold people for not wanting to know, intentionally putting blinders on, burying their heads in the sand and not seeing that we have a problem.” That’s why we have so many people accepting the status quo and not doing anything about it because the overwhelming majority of them don’t know. Our job, as the 5% leaders, is to always do that education and awareness.
When I make you aware of a problem, you don’t have a choice. Either you can not do anything and stay a part of the problem, in that way you move into the 10% or you can move into a place, “I’m now aware, what can I do about the problem and what can I help you with?” It’s my job to equip you. The biggest framework is if you’re a 5% leader, your job is to educate the 50% who don’t know any better and give the tools to the 35% who do know better but haven’t taken action yet. All of our jobs are to make that 10% uncomfortable and get them out of leadership roles.
You can’t hold people accountable for things that they don’t know, but you can hold people for not wanting to know.
There could be another construct that could be like, “Though they’re the 10%, they probably control 90% of the actions.”
They do, but they only control 90% because 85% are dumb, deaf and blind to the problem. They had taken no action. That’s the only way they’re able to do that because too many of us sit idly by on all kinds of issues. I’m being very honest and transparent. We all have been in that 85% at some point in time. Sometimes we might’ve been in the 10%. Think about the opportunities that were given as men than women won’t ever receive those same opportunities.
We have to flip the Social Conscious Construct from a race, gender and a role inside of the organization. You can look at this in multiple ways and find that you could be in that 85% and creep into the 10% at any point in time. Your goal is to always strive to be a Socially Conscious Leader and to keep yourself in that 5% mentality.
I appreciate the time we had in hearing deep about that conscious leadership construct and your thoughts on toxic leadership. With all that being said, what words of wisdom would you want to leave our readers with?
I’m a very simple man. I think the world gives us all a new opportunity every day. The words of wisdom that I would give people every day they get up is that it’s never a wrong time to do the right thing. There are lots of injustices that have happened in the past. Maybe you mistreated someone, but every day you’re given a new opportunity and it’s never a wrong time to do the right thing. The more of us find a way to do the right thing, the better the world and the organizations we get and the better our planet is.
I’m going to state this the next time we talk. I’ll say, “I want your model to have not a 5%. We’re going to increase that number together, all of us in the movement.” Where should people go if they want to hear, connect and learn more about you?
You can go to my home base which is AntonGunn.com. That’s where you can find me. You can also find me on all social platforms. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are where I prefer you to connect with me because I add a lot of valuable content. As a special gift to the readers, I will give everybody a free download that answers the first of those three questions to show your team and the people you work with and how you care. If you go to AntonGunn.com/StarterQuestions, it will give you a framework of the questions that you need to ask people, learn about them, and begin showing them that you care about them because you can’t care about people that you don’t know.
Thank you very much. I appreciate your insights.
Thank you very much for the time, Kevin. I appreciate you. Keep doing the phenomenal work that you’re doing.
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About Anton Gunn
Anton Gunn is a former senior advisor to President Barack Obama and the world’s leading authority on Socially Conscious Leadership. He has a master’s degree in Social Work from USC and was a Resident Fellow at Harvard.
He is the bestselling author of The Presidential Principles and has been featured in TIME magazine, the Wall St Journal, INC Magazine, BBC, NPR, and Good Morning America. Recently, Anton was named as one of the Ten Most Influential Minority Executives in Healthcare by Fierce Healthcare.
As the CEO of 937 Strategy Group, he has worked with organizations like Mercedes-Benz, KPMG, Rock Ventures, Sodexo, Tanger Outlets, Verizon Wireless, Aetna, T-Mobile, American College of Surgeons, University of Vermont Health Network, Blue Shield of California, and the Boeing Company.
From playing SEC Football and being the first African American in history elected to the South Carolina legislature from his district early in his career to now working as a business and management consultant and serving on multiple boards, he has spent his life helping people build diverse, high-performing teams, and world-class leadership culture.