Recently, I was facilitating a two-day leadership summit centered on diversity and inclusion with a corporate client that is very dedicated to its inclusion journey.

I was working with 50 IT managers and their vice president. The group was mostly white men, a few white women, and a few men and women of color. As a facilitator, I found the group to be heartfelt, diverse in life experiences, hardworking and sincere, both as individuals and as a team.

During the summit, we examined the corporation’s dominant business culture and compared it to US white male culture. The overlapping characteristics were:

  • Rugged individualism
  • Time as linear and future-focused
  • Action over reflection
  • Rationality over emotionality
  • Low tolerance for uncertainty
  • Status and rank over connection

When having this conversation, leaders tend to be all over the board with their points of view. Reactions include feeling uncomfortable and owning it, discounting the existence of US white male culture, and feeling energized and relieved that we are finally having “this talk.” From our firm’s philosophical standpoint, we don’t label US white male culture or any culture for that matteras good or bad.

Instead, we seek to understand and examine white male culture. While good has certainly come from it, we must also recognize that it has prevented and continues to prevent many people from being their full, authentic selves¾including white men. This is especially true if these are the only characteristics that make a person successful at a company.

During the summit, a white woman stood up and said she didn’t understand why there was a problem these characteristics.

My reply was this: “From my perspective, there is no problem with these characteristics. Everyone has to learn to navigate and operate within this company culture in order to be successful. The challenge is in seeking to understand if these are the only, or the more valued, characteristics that the company culture recognizes in a leader. If so, what message does that send to emerging leaders and the workforce?”

At this point, a woman of color in a leadership position spoke up. “I’ve had to use the power of connections my whole career,” she said. “I can’t tap into rank and status because I will never outrank anyone in this company as a woman of color in our present culture.”

She went on to explain that it was vital to her professional success to understand the norms of the dominant culture in her workplace and learn how to navigate them.

Sharing her truth was a risk. It takes courage to say something that might cause temporary discomfort for colleagues, company leaders, and the dominant culture group.

Yet I sensed she knew it was equally important that they hear her emotionally (from their hearts) and analytically (from their heads) to understand the impact of not being recognized or given credibility for all you bring to the table.

This leader’s heartfelt truth cut through so many layers of complexity and, frankly, I was in awe. I saw sameness and difference in this woman’s experience and my own. As a white male, I have undeniable privilege, but I too have had to leverage connections to surmount generational and class differences in my life.

This woman enhanced my understanding of dominant culture norms and the opportunities and challenges they present. She makes me hopeful that the organizational cultures of tomorrow will see the business and relational value of different ways of leading.