"With great power comes great responsibility". We often attribute this deeply historical quote to Spider-Man, an ordinary kid with extraordinary gifts.
As inclusive leaders, many of us would hesitate to compare ourselves to beloved superheroes. We go to work, do our job, we strive to bring people along, we do the best we can the most authentic way we can, and we return home at the end of the day. No gifts. Nothing special. We just do what we do.
In these times, where injustice and inaction can lead to life or death outcomes, a brand of inclusive leadership is needed that calls us to be allies. Indeed, great power does come with great responsibility, but as boldly inclusive leaders, it should not require a cape or a mask to do this work well.
As I write this piece, I do so on a day where blatant acts of racial and structural injustice have been met with loud calls for accountability, amidst fears that leaders will fail to take necessary action and change will remain elusive.
For truly inclusive leaders – particularly those in private, public, and non-profit sectors – it is not sufficient to simply acknowledge our unconscious biases or be aware of microaggressions. We need to do the hard work of meaningful change in our organizations. We need to do what is right for our people. It is about bringing your whole self – your values, your ethics, your integrity – to the table, just as you encourage others to. If we want our stakeholders to trust us and to feel safe, we need to lead by example.
Of all the headlines dominating today’s news about how power and privilege can be used and abused, it is a story out of London, England that has me particularly reflective about what it means to be boldly inclusive. In this case, people are calling out the violence and neglect that one Black woman -- an essential worker -- faced while on-the-job, and asking corporate leaders and systems to do more, to be accountable, and to be just.
Coronavirus: Victoria ticket worker dies after being spat at
Belly Mujinga was a British transport employee just doing her job selling tickets at an outdoor kiosk when, along with another worker, she was allegedly assaulted by a man claiming to have COVID-19. The two women and a third colleague who witnessed the incident (describing the man as “smartly dressed”, resembling “a lawyer”) reported it to their manager, requesting a call to police as the man had intentionally coughed and spat at them. According to their union, police were never called. Instead, after reporting the situation to the manager, the women were apparently asked to return to their posts.
Within a couple of days, both women were diagnosed with COVID-19, and sadly two weeks after the incident, on April 5th, Ms. Mujinga succumbed to the disease, leaving behind her partner and young daughter. An underlying respiratory condition that Ms. Mujinga had previously disclosed to her employer raised her risk of serious illness upon exposure.
In mid-May, the British Transport Police (BPT) launched an investigation, following a national outcry and calls for transit workers to receive more protection during the pandemic. It was at this time that Ms. Mujinga's employers, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) announced it would be cooperating with the investigation.
Today, the BPT released its findings: “there is no evidence to substantiate any criminal offences having taken place, and the tragic death of Belly Mujinga was not a consequence of this incident”. The media has reported that the attacker did not have COVID-19. Still, the criminality of the act, as well as why public-facing employees were working in high-traffic areas while unprotected have yet to be explained.
For what it’s worth, the transport minister framed the situation as a criminal matter, not about staff having more personal protective equipment.
Meanwhile, employees at GTR report receiving masks from their employer upon the start of the investigation – approximately 6 weeks after Ms. Mujinga’s passing.
Be Accountable, Be an Ally
This is a case that, beyond the legal elements, is an egregious example of lack of leadership accountability within the workplace. In contrast, a truly inclusive leader would do the work of recognizing their power and using their privilege toward allyship for frontline employees.
Although little is known about her colleagues, we know Ms. Mujinga is a frontline worker, an African immigrant to the UK, and a Black woman. Each element of her identity is intersectional and places her on the margins of power. Just as power and privilege inform the employer-employee dynamic, unconscious bias shapes how policies are read and implemented. Thus, having a protocol for reporting abusive behaviour was not enough, as she had no power to insist on follow-through for the report. Disclosing to her employers an underlying condition was not sufficient, as she had no power to insist on appropriate accommodations. Without the power to drive a response, Ms. Mujinga was at the mercy of her employers. Meanwhile, her employers chose to use their power not to act. If her organization had chosen differently -- to use their power for allyship -- Ms. Mujinga might still be alive today.
For those who strive to be boldly inclusive, this case illustrates five areas where leaders could have done better:
Indeed, whether the attacker had COVID-19 or not, reasonable actions should be taken by leaders to help protect and keep safe all stakeholders. This should be the case even after we are no longer facing unprecedented times.
Inclusion is not simply about "being nice". It is about doing what is right and showing up for your people. It is ensuring that workers at all levels of your organization are valued, feel safe, and are treated with the dignity they deserve.
The business case exists, but why would recognizing one’s humanity not be enough?