When I originally envisioned the cover design of my new book, VisuaLeadership: Leveraging the Power of Visual Thinking in Leadership and in Life, the image of the eye on the front cover was going to be blue. Not because I have blue eyes (mine are hazel) but, simply, because blue is my favorite color. And because it would align with the name and the brand of my leadership consulting company, BigBlueGumball.
However, just before officially committing to the blue eye, in the spirit of thinking outside the box I came up with the idea of, instead, using a rainbow-colored eye. This multicolored eye, I felt, better represented the concepts of diversity, inclusion, and belonging, as well as more colorfully foreshadowing the book’s emphasis on innovation and creativity.
So, leaning heavily in favor of the rainbow-colored eye, I decided to post the two options on social media for two reasons: one, just to seek validation for my decision; and, two, to create a little pre-publication social media buzz. Posting the two prototypes on LinkedIn, side-by-side, I asked people to vote on their preference…along with providing their reasons why.
The fact that 80 percent of voters favored the rainbow eye was not at all a surprise. What did surprise and shock me, however, was the anger and vitriol with which a number of respondents attacked me personally for even suggesting the blue eyeball as an option! While, to me, the blue eye was just one of many possible color variations, to many others the symbolism of the blue eye meant so much more. So, despite my innocent (and, perhaps, naïve?) intentions, I ended up being personally accused of being biased and discriminatory at worst, and clueless and “not woke” at best.
Even though none of these things about me were true, and despite my having already decided on the rainbow eye anyway, this incident, which I could not ignore, both shook me up and reinforced how important it is in today’s world to be consciously aware of current sensitivities, as well as the fact that everything we do and say, and every decision we make, needs to be viewed through a lens of diversity, inclusion, belonging, and equity.
And this is as important in the world of education as it is anywhere else.
The basic premise of VisuaLeadership is that how we lead is inseparable from the lens through which we view the world. Our beliefs and values, resulting from the cumulative effect of all our life experiences, impact and influence the way we think, the decisions we make, and the actions we take.
When I ask the students in my NYU and Columbia University leadership graduated classes to shout out the first word that comes to mind when they hear the word, “leadership,” what would you guess is the most common response? If you said, “vision,” you would be correct. But what does it mean to have a leadership vision or to be a visionary leader?
Vision, both literally and metaphorically, has to do with “seeing.” And, in a leadership context, it has to do with seeing a future that is different from – and better than – the current reality. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not say that he had a 500-page business plan; he said that he had a Dream. And Job #1 of any leader is to help turn that dream or vision into a reality. And that is, primarily, what the eye on the book jacket was intended to represent: the concept of the “leadership vision.”
But there are two other equally important – if not more important – meanings of the book cover image; and I refer to it as, “Flipping the Eye.”
Firstly, “Flipping the Eye” is about turning the eye on ourselves, and reflecting on who we are and how we are as leaders, and questioning all of our perceptions, preconceptions, assumptions, and beliefs.
And, secondly – and this is where the multicolored rainbow eye really comes into play – it’s about seeing the world, with empathy and compassion, through the lens of those who are different from you.
And nowhere is this more important than in the classroom – whether teaching in person or online.
As educators, we are leaders. And, as leaders, we must consistently focus on “Flipping the Eye.” But how? One way is by looking at and reassessing the images we use, the frameworks we choose, the metaphors we offer, and the stories we tell from the perspective of our students, rather than – as is typically the case – from our own.
In addition to teaching leadership graduate courses at NYU for the past ten years, and at Columbia University for the past six, I am also involved in faculty development (observation, assessment, coaching, and training). As such, I have witnessed, firsthand, the teaching practices of more than 100 of my faculty peers over the years. And one of the most common practices I have observed is instructors thinking and communicating from their own perspective rather than that of their diverse student population. And, in so doing, they often show PowerPoint slide images lacking in diversity; use metaphors that alienate, rather than educate; and tell stories that although well-intended, often offend.
For illustration, I would like to share the following real-life example:
An experienced instructor featured in his class a “Leadership Quotations Quiz” exercise in which students were tasked with filling in the blanks of twelve famous leadership quotes. For example: President John F. Kennedy wrote that, “Leadership and ________[blank] are indispensable to each other.” (The answer, by the way, is “learning.”)
This was an incredibly fun, energizing, and creative gamification activity that fully engaged the students in the learning process, got their wheels turning, had them interacting with their peers. It ultimately led to groans, smiles, and laughter as the instructor, in an entertaining fashion, revealed each answer with a series of visual PowerPoint slides that each featured a photo of the speaker along with the completed quote.
Looking at the list of quotations on the quiz sheet, there appeared to be no issue at all. Seeing the visual images of the answers during the slide presentation, however, revealed a glaring (though entirely unintentional) oversight. As it turned out, the famous speakers of each and every one of the quotes ended up being a middle-aged, white male.
While all the quotes were excellent and relevant choices by well-known leaders, the complete lack of diversity was a glaring mistake and a missed opportunity. The instructor had used this very same quiz for a number of years. He’d never noticed this now-obvious pattern before…until one of his students respectfully (offline, after class) pointed it out to him.
So, what did the instructor do? Horrified and embarrassed by his obliviousness, he went home that evening and spent three hours researching and replacing more than half of the quotations with a far more diverse representation. Gone were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Ford, and Bill Gates. And in were Ursula Burns, Kenneth Chenault, Indra Nooyi, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Lao Tzu.
The very next class session, the instructor kicked off the class by publicly acknowledging his error in judgment; thanked the student who pointed it out; and proceeded to re-deliver the new-and-improved version of the slides to the delight and appreciation of his 35 students. He also invited the students to submit and share their own favorite leadership quotes in future sessions.
After presenting the new version of the quiz, the icing on the cake, in addition to the students’ round of applause, was the reaction of the student who had bravely brought the issue to the instructor’s attention – despite her admitted (but, as turned out, unwarranted) fear of a possible adverse reaction on the part of her professor. She publicly acknowledged in front of the entire class that, rather than being defensive or dismissive, the instructor had been open to the feedback, took full responsibility and accountability, and was immediately responsive in terms of rectifying the issue. This brought it to light as a teachable moment…rather than just sweeping it under the rug as he could have. Turning lemons into lemonade, and pulling back the curtain on what happened, this episode became a living lesson in leadership for all involved – both student and teacher alike.
In case you had already guessed, by the way…yes, that instructor was me. And this incident was one of the most “eye-opening” moments of my teaching career. Had I proactively “flipped the eye” ahead of time, I would likely have noticed and remedied the lack-of-diversity oversight on my own, without it having to be pointed out to me. In this situation, I was thankful that my students – because they “assumed positive intent” – viewed this episode as a teachable moment. It was a leadership learning opportunity for all, rather than anything other than that.
When we “flip the eye” for the purpose of consciously reflecting on how we think and communicate, we can see the world through the diverse lens of our students . We will make wiser and more inclusive choices. Flipping the eye, as both a mantra and a habit, will not only better connect us with our students, but will open our eyes to a new and more diverse world of possibilities.