10 Leadership Lessons from the Curious Case of Colin Kaepernick
By pa360, Sep 9 2018 03:43PM
Considered in a historical context, the curious case of Colin Kaepernick is not really that curious at all. For those of a certain generation, history is simply repeating itself. The script goes something like this: a sports personality takes a stand on a social or political issue and is reviled and ostracised from their chosen sport as a result. Years later, the same sports personality is recognised as courageous and heroic. The names are different, aspects of the situation are different, but fundamentally we have been here before haven't we?
Ultimately, the political climate in the US will change, the wanton orgy of divisiveness will end and everyone will come to their senses. It is funny how history has a way of repeating itself, but sometimes it takes the re-learning of past lessons to remind us that, much as we might go to the brink, few are willing to go over the edge. Or to paraphrase the words of Martin Luther King: even if we struggle to live together as brothers, we are not prepared to perish together as fools.
As such, the curious case of Colin Kaepernick will end predictably, with Kaepernick remembered as a pioneer of his time and with history repeating itself, once socio-political conditions permit.
With that in mind, the purpose of this blog is not to prognosticate or pick apart the evolution of the social issues that have driven the Kaepernick protest. Rather, it is to highlight ten leadership lessons that can be learnt from them.
1. Conditions will always create leaders - in many ways, the actions of Colin Kaepernick restore one's confidence in the idea that the concept of leadership is alive and well. The sheer diversity of life experience and life outcomes within and between communities guarantees that leaders will always emerge to further one cause or another. There are few social institutions that evidence the health of a society more than a thriving economy of leadership. Whether or not you agree with the interpretation given to issues, or with the leaders who choose to champion them, just don't be surprised when leaders emerge. Perhaps more fundamentally, if you do not like the leaders that you have, then change the conditions that produce them.
2. Prepare to speak your truth in the face of overwhelming power - in the grand scheme of things, Kaepernick and his fellow 'kneelers' are mere specs in the face of the overwhelming power and might arraigned against them. Whether this is the individual might of the team owners, the governing might of the National Football League of the political might of figures in the highest office in Washington. A 'sensible' person might reasonably weigh and balance these competing elements and decide that discretion is the better part of valour. However, in leadership, there is no better time to speak truth to power than when you are, by comparison, powerless. Consent and dissent are the hardest things to do when you disrupt the status quo.
3. Leadership is not a measure of perfection - in preparing this blog, I have read various articles and watched many commentators critique the credentials and character of Colin Kaepernick. Personally, I have never met the man and therefore do not know whether any of the positive or negative things said about him, are true. One thing I do know however, is that neither perfection nor piety are pre-requisites of leadership. The fact, for example, that Kaepernick is a multi-millionaire, no more disqualifies him from protesting, than it qualifies him to do so. Leadership is not about your standing, it's about where you stand and what you stand for.
4. Be prepared to be despised, but never accept to be intimidated - one of the more predictable aspects of Kaepernick's case is the level of animus being directed towards him. This is a man who has taken no hostages, detonated no bombs and led no terrorist insurrections. Yet he is still seen as a hate figure by some, not just for what he has done, but for what he is perceived to have done. In leadership, being despised is often par for the course. If you are more concerned with your reputation, ratings or public approval, then you are unfit to lead.
5. Be prepared to go it alone - in leadership, the hardest place to start is at the beginning. The passion, energy and sense of purpose that propels you when you first decide to step forward, can quickly dissipate when your motives and being questioned and your message is perceived in a negative light. Even more so, it can be energy sapping, when momentum fails to materialise, behind your cause, as you expected. So here's the rub, if you are not prepared to lead with the understanding that you might have to go it alone and with the recognition that you might ultimately get nowhere, then stay where you are. In leadership, the truth is that just because others agree with you, doesn't guarantee that they will follow you.
6. Do not compromise - in leadership if it mattered in the beginning, then surely it should also matter in the end. Leadership is not something that you can opt in and out of or a construct through which your message can be watered down. Kaepernick may well have been imperfect in the way in which he initially sought to make his protest (sitting rather than kneeling) but he has none-the-less been unwavering in the commitment to his cause. Nothing shores up leadership credibility more than the authenticity of your issue and few things undermine your credibility more than the inconsistency of your message.
7. Sometimes people who look at the same situations can see different things - do not assume simply because you have a cause that you care about, that others will see the same issue in the same way. In leadership, you can only control what you say, but you have zero control over what others hear or indeed what they want to hear. In leadership, you cannot beat yourself up over the fact that 'people don't seem to get it'. They do get it, but they just don't agree with you.
8. Engage with the disgruntled, don't play politics with them - one of the more interesting aspects of the Kaepernick protest is how quickly senior politicians at the highest levels of the US government have used it to play politics. It is fascinating how one persons protest, has been appropriated by another as 'cladding' for their personal profile. In truth, it is not just fascinating, it is fundamentally wrong. Even if, for the sake of argument, one believes that Kaepernick's attempt at leadership is ill-judged; surely the 'higher leadership' response to that has been much worse? The ineffectiveness of political leadership, in responding to the method of the Kaepernick protest, has only served to multiply the number of protesters, not change the method of protest.
9. Never 'commercialise' a cause - for Colin Kaepernick's sake, I hope he and Nike have carefully thought through the public relations implications of their new 10-year partnership deal. I say that because the image of brother Kaepernick getting paid, whilst others are getting shot, isn't a good look. Such a perception would undermine his message, raise questions about his commitment and create a reason for people to doubt him. More likely however, Kaepernick and Nike have probably spent months stressing over how this deal can be turned into something strategically successful. I am never one to encourage others to make public displays of their good works, but I will make an exception in this case. My advice for Kaepernick would be to make a public commitment to give a sizeable portion of personal earnings, from this deal, to social charities.
10. ...but be prepared to broaden your constituency - the willingness to broaden one's constituency and utilise a wide range of channels to vocalise one's cause, is a perfectly legitimate thing for any leader to do. So too is the willingness to make common cause with those who are prepared to make common cause with you. The fact that a person has a different life experience, is from a different social demographic or represents a different political flag, should never be a disqualifier. In leadership, even if you espouse a cause that makes people feel uncomfortable, you should never adopt a position that makes them feel unwelcome.