How Leaders Can Engage Dialogue in Race Relations

The expression “Hindsight is 2020” now seems to be a two-edged sword that will cut into history for generations and perhaps centuries to come. We are all part of this watershed year that will determine the course of our culture and country.

The Year of Change

First it was the COVID-19 Coronavirus that caused us to withdraw from public exposure. Then as this challenge started to abate somewhat, several instances of violent and shameful killing of blacks by whites grabbed our attention—dominating the media and capturing our emotions. So much good and bad is still coming from these two worldwide, culture-jarring crises.

Today, let’s look at the hopeful good that takes hold soon as the bad peacefully abates, and let’s consider as honorable leaders how those painful deaths have brought us to a painful look at the experiences that so many have suffered.

Suffering in the POW Camps

Having learned first about suffering during my five-year Vietnam POW experience, I also experienced the blessings that can come from it. And being a leadership coach who tries to live by our Courage Challenge, “Lean into the pain of your doubts and fears  to do what you know is right even when it doesn’t feel natural or safe,”[i]

I knew I could not withdraw and watch from the sidelines. Recently, I chose to re-engage this issue of race relations, and I knew that was probably going to be painful too.

Learning What I Didn’t Know

Though I grew up in the South in the days of segregation, I always knew it was wrong. I’ve always had very close relationships with African American/Black/People of Color—rocked to sleep in the arms of Grace as a toddler, roomed with Tuskegee cadets in boot camp, and locked in a cell with a wonderful black leader for almost two years in the Hanoi Hilton POW camp. In recent years, some of the professional peers I love and trust the most are people of color.

So, I know I’m not a racist; but I also realized that I probably did not know what I didn’t know.

Avoiding Domination or Withdrawal

“When confronted with a crisis or challenge, the natural tendency of most humans is to either try to withdraw or dominate.” [Tweet This]

I’m not intimidated by conflict, so my natural tendency is to try to get in control and drive toward the results that I want. Debate comes easy. I believe that my perspective is right, and I can show you the facts that will win the day.

About 40% of the population naturally lean toward dominating like I’ve described above, while the other 40% tends toward withdrawing from conflict altogether. Though there are times to have heated discussions or withdraw and reflect, they only work when there is high trust. So, what do we do when high trust isn’t present? Honorable leaders must choose to engage.

Here’s the Leadership Engagement Model that my team and I use everyday in leadership coaching and development, and it’s just as effective when having a dialogue about race relations:

My Engagement Experiences So Far

To engage in open dialogue, I reached out to a close, trusted friend, Tony, who is a person of color. Rather than approaching our conversation as a debate, it was important for it to be a dialogue to see the world through his painful life experiences and set aside my experience as a white guy. This pain has occurred despite his successful achievements as a CFO of a multi-billion-dollar company and the CEO of another large company. My assumption was that he had some challenges back in the day, but I had no idea of the painful cultural gashes that still come his way on a regular basis. My love and respect for this man enabled me to trust him and set aside my worldviews to listen and learn what black people still must contend with in our society.

Tony recommended that I watch an online video about Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” produced by the Kirwan Institute. This powerful and emotional portrayal reminded me where we were and where we still need to go as a society.

Another short video that I watched recently was a discussion by two Air Force colonels, one black and one white. Although they were classmates at the USAF Academy (95) and now both wing commanders at the same base, this was the first time they had ever talked about issues of race.[ii] Everyday professionals on both sides of the racial spectrum have been walking on eggshells and withdrawing instead of engaging in the kind of positive dialogue that would help us be free from so many unspoken issues that have kept both blacks and whites in cultural chains.

I’m also starting additional dialogue with black friends to continue this learning and growth process.

My latest Leading with Honor Coaching clip explains the steps that I’ve taken above and how we can all lead with honor right now – please watch

(If the video window doesn’t work, please watch it here.)

Discerning the Needed Changes

“Unfortunately, there are many groups and cults trying to co-opt the legitimate race issues that need to be rectified, so wisdom and discernment is needed right now to sort out the best interest of all our citizens.” [Tweet This]

This is not the time to withdraw. We must engage each other in dialogue and work through the issues at hand. It’s going to take courage because in today’s polarized world of social media, we are likely to be attacked regardless of our stance. I’m going to do my best to stand for love, peace and justice and I’m going to stay engaged with my black brothers and sisters whom I love, respect and trust to help me sort out what that looks like.

I want to challenge you to try this approach—courageously engage in dialogue and truly listen to the perspectives and experiences of those who have a different color skin. Remember, the small but powerful Leadership Engagement Model is available on the Courage Challenge Card. It’s available as a free download on the Leading with Honor website. And be sure to post your advice and experience below.  


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[i] You can download a free copy of the Courage Challenge and the Leadership Engagement Model™ at Also, you can order laminated Courage Challenge cards in packs of ten at

[ii] Insert the link to the two black colonels sharing.




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