Wanted: Courage and Leadership in Corporate America
EGG Memorial Leadership

Wanted: Courage and Leadership in Corporate America

Earl G. Graves Sr.
(Image: Sarah J. Glover)

Where are the leaders of courage and leadership in corporate America?

I honestly once believed that, by the time we entered the 21st century, our nation, and corporate America in particular, would have made tremendous progress in delivering on the promise of equal opportunity for all. However, corporate America’s track record today of diversity and inclusion of African Americans—in the C-suite, on boards of directors, and among its suppliers—is appalling.

Sixty years ago, as a matter of military policy and federal law, I was forced to go through the back door to receive the uniform I wore in service to my country in the Army because of my race. However, from 1970, when I launched Black Enterprise magazine, through the 1990s, I was encouraged by barrier-breaking advancements of African Americans, especially in the executive ranks of major companies—from Roy Roberts at General Motors and Ken Chenault at American Express, to Ann Fudge at General Foods and the late A. Barry Rand at Xerox. I was confident that I would leave a different, better world to my children and grandchildren than the one I inherited.

Today, it is obvious that my confidence was misplaced. In fact, for black people, the state of diversity and equal opportunity in corporate America—the companies featured in our Diversity and Inclusion Issue representing the exceptional minority—is nearly as dismal as was it was in the 1960s before legal racial discrimination was outlawed as a result of the civil rights movement. There are as many reasons for the current state of affairs as there are people willing to point fingers of blame. However, it all boils down to one thing: a colossal failure of corporate leadership. When all is said and done, the buck stops with the CEOs—the overwhelming majority of whom are white and male.

It is important to remember that the great progress with diversity, inclusion, and equal opportunity made in the ’80s and ’90s in corporate America, with all due respect to civil rights leaders like the Rev. Jesse Jackson and organizations such as the NAACP, could not have happened without the bold leadership of its CEOs, who were all white males—some liberal, the majority political conservatives. The leadership of legendary Xerox Corp. Chairman and CEO David Kearns was an indispensable catalyst to the company setting the standard for African American representation in the senior management ranks in the 1980s, with more than a dozen black corporate vice presidents, including Rand, who would rise to become president of worldwide operations before becoming the CEO of Avis. And yes, Ursula Burns, a summer intern at Xerox in 1980, who rose to become the first black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company in 2009 when she was named its chief executive, is part of that legacy.

And under the leadership of a succession of CEOs from the 1970s through the 1990s, including Robert C. Stempel and John F. Smith Jr., General Motors was a vocal champion of affirmative action, equal opportunity, and diversity, not as a matter of social responsibility but as a critical requirement of corporate performance and competitiveness in the automotive industry. It took bold leadership for GM to name civil rights leader and anti-apartheid activist Rev. Leon Sullivan to its board of directors in 1971, making Sullivan the first African American director at a Fortune 500 company. GM also did significant business with black-owned companies, helping many of them rise to the ranks of the BE 100s, a listing of the largest black-owned companies and auto dealerships.

Today, that kind of leadership—with notable exceptions such as JPMorgan Chase Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon and AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson—is alarmingly rare. If America is ever to realize its unlimited potential—and frankly, to regain its status as the most productive, innovative country in the world—this must change. It is the responsibility of corporate leaders to ensure that the talent, skills, and abilities of people, including black people, are brought to bear at every level and arena of industry—and especially in the C-suite. It is long past time for a new generation of CEOs of courage and leadership to step up, stop with the excuses, and deliver results.