From Tone-deaf to Teachable: The Role of Crisis in Creating Shifts for the Powerful

Jennifer Brown | |


You can also listen on iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play.

In this minisode, Jennifer shares her reflections about motivational speaker and author Tony Robbin’s comments about the #MeToo movement and the broader takeaways for all leaders about becoming aware of their blind spots. Jennifer shares a powerful example about how a leader used a crisis moment to transform himself and his organization and reveals what is needed from male leaders in the age of #MeToo.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • A teachable moment for leaders and how it went viral (1:40)
  • How leaders can become aware of their blind spots (4:00)
  • The importance of holding the door open for redemption (6:45)
  • What leaders need to do to explore their underlying beliefs (9:00)
  • How the #MeToo movement is broader than you might think (14:00)
  • The fears that keep leaders from leaning in (17:45)
  • An “aha” moment that became a transformative experience for an executive (19:30)
  • The danger of irrelevance for leaders (22:30)
  • The wake up call for men and what is needed from male leaders (26:30)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

DOUG FORESTA: Hello, and welcome back to The Will to Change, this is Doug Foresta, and with me is Jennifer Brown.

Today, we’re going to be talking about an incident that actually happened fairly recently, just this week in fact—or perhaps when you’re listening to this, maybe a week or two weeks ago. Jennifer, first of all, welcome.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks, Doug.

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you. Do you want to share with our audience this moment that we were talking about as a teachable moment for leaders and what occurred?

JENNIFER BROWN: Sure thing. So Twitter has been alive with an incident that actually happened a month ago from today when we’re doing this recording. And it just came to light, though, because there was a video that went viral that was released and everybody got to actually see it, which caused a whole furor in social media.

But, basically, it was motivational speaker Tony Robbins at one of his big events in San Jose, I believe. It was an 11-minute clip, and I encourage folks to find it and watch it. He went back and forth with a woman who was challenging his take on Me Too, challenging Tony’s philosophy, I guess, as he was presenting it that day that just succumbing to being a victim doesn’t help anyone and it hurts others when you do it.

He characterized those who are participating in Me Too by sharing their stories as striving for significance by telling their story, which is, I guess, a bad thing in his methodology.

Obviously, this did not go over well at this moment in our cultural conversation and experience and came across as incredibly tone deaf. The woman who challenged him remained standing and continued to challenge him. At one point in the video, it’s very unfortunate, but I guess sometimes with people, he will come up and push against you physically.

DOUG FORESTA: Right, physically push you.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right. And in the video, it looks like he’s pushing this woman back as she’s standing up to him speaking about her experience as a survivor. It’s incredibly unfortunate.

He issued an apology, you can read it online, just Google it. It was good that he made the apology, but probably not very convincing for a lot of people judging on the reaction that I saw on social media.

We’re at this point where, depending on what you think about him, a very successful, well-respected person—loved by some—who really had a very difficult childhood, it’s part of his narrative. But he lives a very privileged life now.

It struck me that there are a lot of teachable pieces, Doug. There is so much in it that relates to the work we do in supporting, particularly executive leaders in business—which tend to look like Tony, demographically speaking. We support leaders to be aware of their blind spots. To me, this was a blind spot.

Regardless of his intent—and I don’t know him well enough to know his intent, I’d have to be friends with him and have a lot more data points than I have. Regardless, it was a tone-deaf moment. It was a moment of blind spots due to privilege. Even deeper than that, it spoke to his total lack of curiosity about what’s swirling around in the world right now for women or men who are survivors of abuse and harassment and the national conversation that’s happening.

I thought it was curious for somebody who is so reliant on understanding their audience to continue to teach the same things and use the same stories. In fact, on the same day I read that he evoked Steve Wynn as part of some kind of leadership story.

DOUG FORESTA: Right. Maybe not the best example. (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: That was really unfortunate. No matter what kind of leader Steve Wynn is. Again, I’m not judging somebody’s ability to build a multi-gazillion-dollar business.

But he was unaware that so many of us have been reading the headlines about somebody like Steve Wynn, and to then be also a white man evoking another white man in the stories you’re telling now is really interesting, too.

We are acutely aware of how many men are put on a stage in an event. A lot of us roll our eyes when we see an event that’s allegedly about gender equality, and it’s all men on the stage. You know? Literally, this stuff is still happening.

DOUG FORESTA: Exactly. Welcome to the gender equality conference, no women allowed.

JENNIFER BROWN: So we’re in the midst of this. And I just think that you’d have to be living under a rock, frankly, and maybe it’s under the rock of privilege to not know this is going on, and to then reflect, as somebody who really has the ability to impact millions of people—millions of people—with what you say or don’t say, to not reflect on this. There might be this amazing tie-in between what you teach every time you get up on stage and what the audience is experiencing and finding their voice about. There’s a lot of opportunity there.

Far from a chore, this is not a burden. This doesn’t water down a message, it actually is a great opportunity for a leader. He totally missed the boat.

By the way, I still think he can come back from this. I think a lot also about redemption these days. I think that’s important to hold the door open for redemption for leaders, too. Apology is the first step, and he’s taken the first step. It’s going to be really interesting to see what happens next and what his learning medication is.

DOUG FORESTA: I was going to ask you that. I know that’s your philosophy, Jennifer. It’s not about burning people to the ground, it’s about these teachable moments. In your estimation, what needs to happen to work your way back into a place of understanding? What would you want to see happen? What needs to happen?

JENNIFER BROWN: Well, I do think a very, very close look, if you’re a teacher, like he is, you’re holding so many people’s experience in your hands, and so many vulnerabilities in your hands every day with what you do. He’s got to learn. Wake up, start paying attention, be educated, have a turbo course, if you will, on how did we get here to this moment of Me Too? It’s not just now.

Tarana Burke was one of the most vocal voices on Twitter in the last week or two. I recommend everybody read her feed. She originated the Me Too movement. She has explained, in granular detail, the points that he was wrong about in her opinion. I completely agree with what she’s written, so please go read that.

Starting to listen, starting to look at his audience with the help of people like Tarana and other thought leaders. Absolutely, I would recommend he gather a group, apprentice, and be mentored by the women and some of the men who have been very active in the Me Too conversation. It’s not just up to women to teach about this. There are not a lot of men, but there are some men who are doing some deep thinking about this. I think it might be important for somebody like Tony to be taught as well by men and to be in that community so that he can explore his own underlying beliefs that come out when he teaches about what’s important and what’s not.

Alongside that, I also think that segmenting his audience, it seems to me he treats his audience the same—meaning with a broad brush, assuming that everybody can relate to the concepts that he’s teaching because they’re transcendent, so true, amazing, timeless—that’s sort of his shtick. Not to put it down, I know that it’s been transformational for a lot of people.

Doug, it reminds me that when I get up to talk to leaders, I make the point about the difference between equality and equity. Equality is the goal that we all want to get to, but unfortunately it’s far away. How do we get to equality? Well, we build more equitable approaches, strategies, and policies if we’re designing a workplace and a workforce.

“Equitable” means that it’s an acknowledgement that it is inequitable right now. Meaning that there are people in your audience—when you have women, when you have people of color, when you have people who have been on the margins without a voice or in the minority, they’re having a different experience. They’re hearing your points differently. They are interpreting what you’re telling them through the lens of their own experience. Their experience is different than the person sitting next to them based on their identity.

We can’t approach everything with a broad brush and just say things like, “Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Be careful of the siren song of wanting to be significant.” Even that point, if it’s seen through the lens of diverse experience, takes on a whole different hue and color to me.

For women, gaining significance of any kind, in the best sense, has been really difficult for us. We don’t get mentioned. We don’t have books written about us. We aren’t on the bestseller lists for leadership books. We haven’t had a voice. That’s the whole point of Me Too.

To say that we might strive for significance, I would say, “Yes, we do. We need to because we haven’t felt significant in the world.”

The whole point of Black Lives Matter is that they have not been significant enough to care about. So when you have a conversation about significance with people who are on the margins, it is actually a very beautiful conversation, which is, “You matter, you’re important. I’m going to talk about your experience because I want to make a more equitable world.”

How do you do this in a classroom of 5,000 people? I don’t know. I would like to explore that. If I were working with him, I would explore his curriculum. I would ask, “Do you need some separate work? Do you need to break your audience out in certain moments or have different teaches on the stage that can more directly speak to people’s experience of insignificance?” I would talk about Tony’s principles, which I’m sure are good, proven, time tested, and incredibly transformational, but talk about them in terms of the lens of difference. It’s just not the same.

I don’t mean to say only women and people of color or his LGBT audience are the only ones that need a particular conversation. I would say men are trying to find their voice to speak up about abuse that has happened to them or has been passed down through the generations or bullying that has happened to them. That’s the next evolution of Me Too. If it really fulfills its potential as a truthful conversation and a quantum leap for humanity, it’s going to be the realization that this is bigger than women. This is the abuse of power, and it can be abused by anyone in power, and the victims of it can look a lot of different ways.

People of color are watching the Me Too movement saying, “Great.” The criticism of a lot of things is that once white people get involved or white women say it’s a problem, then it’s taken seriously.

This is why if you know the history of Me Too and the fact that it was started by a woman of color, or you understand that communities of color have been protesting for a long time before the Women’s March. This is the context that a lot of us are coming to understand. We’re latecomers to the conversation, but some of us have the privileged identities that have pushed it over the finish line in terms of getting into the headlines.

Knowing that, I think leaders like Tony probably need to rewind, go back, understand the history, understand how we got here, update his language, not speak to his audiences as if everybody is the same, because they’re not, and think more deeply about equity. He needs to know that there are a lot of things that he’s not going to be able to teach in the most powerful way, and he’s going to have to really enlist other teaches.

I do know he does that in some of his business mastery programs. There are opportunities. I don’t know how expensive those are—probably very. They may not be his open-enrollment programs, but just the acknowledgement that he has a lot to learn, which I think he’s started down that path with his public apology, which was yesterday, Doug. If anyone is looking for it, I think it came out yesterday, which was April 9th or maybe April 8th so folks can look for it.

DOUG FORESTA: So they can check that out.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.

DOUG FORESTA: One of the things I’m hearing in this for leaders is that what got you here won’t get you there.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s one of our favorite sayings, yes.

DOUG FORESTA: Exactly. In a way, you can become a victim from your own success. I might have small doses in life of understanding that, but to become that powerful, where everyone’s hanging on your every word, and everything you say is the gospel, it’s got to be hard. I would imagine this is a big disruption for leaders. Is that fair to say?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Ideally, what we see is that a leader doesn’t have a big, public mistake like this. Right?

DOUG FORESTA: Right, that would be the ideal, for sure. (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: I’m always trying to mitigate that. It’s so avoidable. I am sure people around Tony have tried to have this conversation. I’m quite sure.

The willingness to listen, the willingness to take it seriously. The word “misogyny” is a heavy word, but maybe if we define it by saying, “I didn’t take this seriously enough to bring it into my thought leadership. I didn’t think this was a big enough deal to reflect on how I’m going to talk about it and do my homework before I get on the stage.”

To me, it feels like a dismissal by somebody who is incredibly powerful and holds everybody in their hands like a piece of putty.

It hurts, but it’s not surprising. I do think it’s the typical blind spot of privilege that a lot of us have. It’s not just him. As I said, folks who are in the white community or identity are waking up to this as we speak. Every day, there are new “ah-hah” moments happening where business leaders are really watching what’s happening in this world and saying, “I need to step off the sidelines and into the conversation in a more meaningful way.” But there are a lot of things in their way that you and I have talked about. Whether it’s I’m not going to say the right thing or I’m going to intrude on somebody’s safe space that they fought so hard to have, or I don’t want to make it all about me, or my story isn’t significant. Speaking of significance.

We do a lot of that work to try to help leaders. They’re never going to be able to walk in the shoes of others, but what you are able to do is call the question. Just framing the moment that you’re in as a learner is so powerful to say, “I’m awake to this, I’m paying attention, I’m trying to learn. I’ve asked other people to mentor me so that I can learn. I may say the wrong things, but here is what I do know, and here’s what I’m committing to with the resources, voice, and platform that I have to create opportunities for others to speak their truth around me in the forums that I am a part of.”

That is really what you can do as a leader who has privilege coming into this conversation. Imagine if Tony did that. Imagine if he gave the floor to that and sat down in the audience and listened for a while.

Doug, in my book, Inclusion, I wrote about the moment with Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, and his “uh-oh” moment that he had at the Grace Hopper conference. We were talking about getting pay raises for women and how they can negotiate better and more effectively in their salary conversations and promotions. He said something very heartfelt. He is a very spiritual man, and he said, “I really believe that if you just work hard and wait, that karma will take care of your needs. The right thing will be done for you as a woman if you’re patient.”

It was a beautiful answer, it was just an answer completely out of context of the times that we’re living in and the fact that the tech industry, in particular, has been the hotbed of the conversation about how bias keeps women down and how women are paid 30 percent less than men.

DOUG FORESTA: Right. And would men accept the answer, “Just be patient”? Right?

JENNIFER BROWN: It was so tone deaf. And he’s such a beautiful man. If you read his book now, he goes into his story, and he names that conference and that moment at that conference as his crucible moment. Everything changed after that moment. He realized he’d been living in a bubble as a tech CEO or a senior executive now elevated to CEO of Microsoft.

I believe it’s probably one of the top five most significant moments as a leader—maybe even the most significant moment as a leader for him. Everything changed, and he’s leading Microsoft differently as a result of that. His book goes into how it impacted his philosophy and his approach.

I really believe leaders can come back from something like this even stronger and more resonant, and we’ve got to give them the chance to do that. As I said, what’s going to be interesting is to see what happens next. I’ll be paying attention to that. What I would do is I would look at Twitter and I would convene the strongest voices with the most credibility on this topic, men and women in a small group. I would bring that group together, all expenses paid, paying them for their time if that’s appropriate and saying, “I want to do a lot of listening. I want to be caught up on this issue. I want to look through my curriculum. I want to think about how I can structure my events differently. I want to make inclusion a priority, what do I need to do that?”

Honestly, I think it will make him an even better force for change in the world. If he doesn’t do that, he may be able to continue with the audiences he has, but the danger of irrelevance is strong for even right now.

DOUG FORESTA: That’s right.

JENNIFER BROWN: Including someone with his power and prestige. Look, talk about significance, how does he want to spend the next ten years using the platform that he has and remaining significant?

DOUG FORESTA: Right. The problem is I know Tony is someone—I don’t know him, but from what I see, he cares about legacy, his own significance, being significant to the next generation.

JENNIFER BROWN: Sure thing.

DOUG FORESTA: And, yes, he probably will be able to continue doing seminars to people who are his age or older, who look like him, but what about legacy? What about that next generation? I would imagine the danger is that you’ll lose them.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. That’s right. You will lose them. He may not notice the loss, but his brand will absolutely be impacted by it. I’d love to know what matters to him. He has a great opportunity right now.

DOUG FORESTA: As we wrap up here, one of the things that I’m really glad you talked about, Jennifer, is the opportunity to come back. The thing I know we wouldn’t want leaders to take away from this is, “Well, if Tony Robbins screwed that up, I’m just not going to touch it.” (Laughter.) Right?

JENNIFER BROWN: No, no, no, don’t take that lesson from us. No!

DOUG FORESTA: Not at all. That’s what I’m saying. I guess that would be my last question for you. Why should leaders lean in on this and not just say, “This is a hot potato that I’m just not going to touch”?

JENNIFER BROWN: Well, we need leaders to lean in more than ever. Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In and COO of Facebook just released an article or a piece of research about the fact that more men feel hesitant and are pulling away from the one-on-one conversations and relationships in the workplace that actually make the biggest difference to talent in the minority—meaning underrepresented talent like women, people of color—anyone that’s woefully underrepresented. We need the mentorship and sponsorship of those who have the purse strings, the power, the voice. They have the ability to advocate for us and open doors for us. That has been shown as the A-number-one factor that you need—sponsorship—to truly shift the challenges that so many of us face in terms of building our career and moving up to the C suite.

If we have got a whole generation of men who are living through this time and pulling away, we are going to—we were never making very good progress anyway, Doug, honestly, before this. It wasn’t like I was swimming in organizational examples of great mentoring and sponsoring programs. Cutting-edge companies are working on this, but the numbers of mentor/mentee pairs that exist in the corporate world is very small as a percentage of the total population at work.

This was not widespread before. We were encouraging it before, but now I fear a backwards energy. But I’ll tell you, on the flip side, I don’t see any companies slowing down at all. The ones who have committed to this are still committing to it. They are steadfast, they are pushing forward. Know that that research is out there and that there’s fear around engaging more deeply because of the implications of Me Too, but also know that plenty of men and senior leaders are pushing into this. In fact, I think they’re looking at this as a wake-up call to push into it because they want to role-model a different response, a different way of being that is still courageous, maybe more courageous than ever.

As we talk about a lot, men watch other men for the cues about what’s acceptable. Women can do a lot of heavy lifting on this conversation, but let’s focus on the men who are leaning in right now, the men who are relatively more fearless and courageous right now, the ones who are saying, “Now more than ever, this is what a male ally looks like,” or somebody who is doubling down on this. Let’s support them. Let’s highlight them, let’s talk about them. I hate to use the word “normalize” because it’s been totally stolen and used for our political environment right now, but I do want to “normalize” that a great male leader is the leader who is leaning in right now around the Me Too conversation and is not afraid. If you have something to be afraid about, that’s a different conversation.

DOUG FORESTA: Right. Exactly. (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: Even with that, redemption is possible. I do believe that in my heart. Punishment and anger and all these things have their place, but we’ve got to go forward together. We’ve got to go forward in a different way. And those who are, perhaps, most broken on both sides from sins of the past, if we can go forward together with honesty, I hope folks tune into our latest episode, Doug, with Tina Alexis Allen and her story of her efforts for redemption in her giant Catholic family, where abuse happened, the fact that she can be loving in the way that she’s processing her own childhood—

DOUG FORESTA: It’s kind of a miracle.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, it’s a miracle. It is. She’s a bigger human than a lot of us. I hope people listen to that episode, because I think she describes what grace looks like going forward, and what going forward together and linking arms across these really fraught relationships really looks like. I think that’s the energy that we have to hold right now.

DOUG FORESTA: Jennifer, beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing your reflections on this incident, but also more broadly the wisdom and take-away for leaders. Thank you so much.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks, Doug.

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you.