Friday, June 12, 2015

Profiles in Courage: Caitlyn Jenner, a lifetime of leadership and personal transformation

“Bruce, always had to tell a lie. He was always living that lie. Every day he always had a secret, from morning till night. Caitlyn doesn’t have any secrets. Soon as the Vanity Fair cover comes out—I’m free.” Caitlyn Jenner

Sometimes it takes a lot of courage to be different and be your true self, especially if it requires radical personal change.

Coincidentally, authenticity, courage, self-awareness and the ability to adapt or change are all common traits of leaders. (See Building the 21st Century Leader from Entrepreneur)

Caitlyn Jenner is a great example of someone who has embodied these leadership qualities to accomplish much in various roles of her life. From overcoming dyslexia as a child, training herself and self-funding her Olympic aspiration as a part-time insurance salesman to her triumph as a former world-record holder and Olympic gold medal decathlete (one of “the most beloved and celebrated athletes in America” )—to becoming a household name through five decades as an icon, actor, motivational speaker, patron of a reality TV family, and now – a transgender woman.

As the International Business Times aptly puts it, “Decades removed from one of the greatest Olympic performances in history, Jenner’s list of accomplishments plays out more like that of a hyperactive Renaissance man than an athlete stuck in neutral after he realizes the mortality of his superhuman abilities.”


Photo credits: Sports Illustrated, General Mills, Kendall Jenner, People Magazine, Vanity Fair)

However, Jenner’s greatest triumph is perhaps the most recent and most personal of them all. For change becomes difficult when others who are involved do not accept or understand the need to adapt and change, which is why the qualities of a leader become critical when you are trying to accelerate change as a matter of survival, competitive advantage or merely being true to yourself.

Despite the noise caused by the media circus and mass prurient interest (Caitlyn’s twitter account was launched alongside the Vanity Fair cover story publication, within hours there were more than 1.1 million followers, breaking the former record held by President Obama), we can all learn a thing or two from Jenner’s lifetime of leadership and her personal transformation.

Many aspiring members of "minority" or disenfranchised groups (e.g., Latinos, African-Americans, Women, Native Americans, LGBT, Disabled, Vets, etc.) can probably identify with the issues and emotional struggle inherent in toggling between assimilation and being true to your culture and heritage. Practically every group has had to fight for equal rights and recognition, and for many—the struggle continues.

Moreover, there is a tidal wave of attitude change looming, as Millennials take over the workforce and society. According to the U.S. Census Bureau today’s 80 million Millennials (those born between 1980-1999) make up the largest generation in history and now have become the largest share of the American workforce. More importantly, survey after survey finds that their collective perspective and experience concerning identity and cultural differences is radically different than all past generations.

"We found a really profound shift in sexual attitudes and behavior," said lead author Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, who recently published a study about Americans' changing views on sexuality based on a survey of nearly 57,000 people between 1972 and 2012. For example, they found that the acceptance of same-sex sexual relations rose from 13 percent in 1990 to 44 percent in 2012. Overall, the study concluded that there is a rise in individualism, with a "cultural system that places more on the needs of the self and less on social rules," stated Twenge.

The Huffington Post likewise concludes that “Millennials are notably likely to look at gender identity and sexual preference as multi-faceted prisms, unwilling to confine themselves to a single checkbox. Hence, Facebook's much-commented-upon new 51 "gender options", including "agender" and "non-binary."

A recent article that has gone “viral” in academic circles about the advent of politics of personal testimony, “in which the feelings of individuals are the primary or even exclusive means through which social issues are understood and discussed,” provides further anecdotal evidence that a monumental change is in motion. The author contends that the power of the single voice can cause a tsunami of reaction, leading many college professors to reexamine their curriculum, lest they risk presenting insensitive material. It won't be long before corporations will need to begin revamping their HR policies to accommodate the new majority. 

Thus, Jenner’s story is a poignant example of how diversity and inclusion is no longer simply a corporate human resource option, but an imperative and a social norm that requires everyone’s participation. Each of us not only needs to be tolerant, accepting, understanding and sensitive to the differences manifest in others, but for those who aspire to be leaders, the ability to discern everyone’s unique abilities, motivate a multi-cultural workforce and  understand the needs of a diverse market is the key to success.

Perhaps, at the advent of Pride month, there is no irony in Jenner’s transformation from representing the epitome of athleticism and manliness, neatly framed  by an iconic orange box—to today’s cover story about a leader and a brave individual  who may very well  become the poster child for a new generation and an inspiration for anyone who simply wants to be “finally free.”

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

I have a dream today, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963

Written by Lorenzo Domínguez

(Note: by making the presentation "full screen" and allowing "keyboard controls" you can to take full advantage of the neat features.)