3 DEI Leadership Lessons from Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court Nomination
Skip to content
Leadership Organizations Mar 6, 2022

3 DEI Leadership Lessons from Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court Nomination

Studying Biden’s nomination process can help leaders “better connect their creeds and their deeds.”

illustration of the exterior of the U.S. Supreme Court building.

Yevgenia Nayberg

My parents always told me as a kid that actions speak louder than words. Not surprisingly, leaders in every sector are feeling the intense heat of accountability as organizational stakeholders evaluate the alignment between their words and actions pertaining to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). And while many leaders are unapologetic about having no intention to drive even a modicum of meaningful change, there are countless others who truly support DEI in their heads and hearts but are sheepishly paralyzed in practice—leaders who deeply struggle with making the transition from well-intentioned believer to high-impact builder.

Add Insight
to your inbox.

For such leaders—and for all of us—President Biden’s historic nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to become the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court is particularly instructive. If confirmed, Jackson would be only the eighth person to sit on the Supreme Court bench who was not a white man since the Court’s establishment in 1789. Biden, who has consistently signaled his commitment to use his presidential power to advance DEI, promised to nominate a Black woman to the Court in the event of a vacancy—and, to his credit, he followed through. Biden’s handling of Jackson’s groundbreaking nomination offers three practical lessons that can help leaders to get unstuck and, ultimately, better connect their creeds and their deeds.

Be precise with what “diversity” means in your context

One aspect of Biden’s approach to this Supreme Court nomination process that was as courageous as it was controversial is the precision with which he declared what “diversity” would look like in this case – namely, that he intended to diversify the Court by adding a Black woman. Without any context, the word “diversity” simply refers to our human differences, whether based on race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, religion, ideology, age/generation, or other factors; it does not expressly refer to particular types of people or assume a particular status hierarchy of haves and have-nots. But in the context of corporate DEI, “diversity” is most often used as an imprecise, catch-all category referring to all of the have-nots who are most often underrepresented in the executive ranks – individuals from a wide array of stigmatized, marginalized, and historically disadvantaged groups. Though politically correct, this imprecision often forestalls meaningful action because progress requires strategic acuity and tactical specificity. If Black and Hispanic women, for example, are not represented in senior management, leaders should say as much in addition to espousing a general commitment to “diversity.”

When committing to increase “diversity,” there can be wisdom in explicitly naming what “diversity” means in a particular context because it can force a sober analysis of which groups have been underrepresented, why, and what can be done to solve for the exclusion. After all, you cannot fix what you are unwilling to face. Ambiguous executive commitments to “diversity” may make for great soundbites, but alone, they rarely fuel measurable progress. To be sure, adopting a generic pro-diversity stance may be easier for leaders than articulating a specific vision of what diversifying their organizations will look like in clear, observable terms. And yet, summoning the clarity and courage to speak with precision can be key in helping leaders gain the traction to accelerate their DEI impact. The road to lasting change begins with a willingness to commit to a vivid picture of the organization’s current state and precisely what “diversity” progress will look like in practice.

Be Prepared to Combat the “Diversity Equals Deficiency” Myth

Upon the announcement of Justice Breyer’s retirement, President Biden promised to nominate a Black woman with “extraordinary qualifications, character, experience, and integrity” to the High Court. While these qualifiers should have been able to go unspoken, people of color, women, and others from historically underrepresented groups are chronically assumed to be incompetent until proven otherwise. Consequently, efforts to diversify organizations are routinely beset by a single question: whether the organization should hire the “best” available candidate or the “diverse” candidate. This cringeworthy “question” subtly suggests that underrepresented candidates will be inherently deficient because diversity and excellence are somehow opposites. Anyone who’s ever advanced underrepresented talent knows that the presumption of incompetence for “diverse candidates”—not to mention double-minorities like Jackson (who is both Black and a woman)—will be the proverbial elephant in the boardroom. Such thinking is nothing more than a paper-thin façade for a polished prejudice that believes that obstructing DEI progress is in the best interest of ensuring strong organizational performance.

Inaction is a decisive vote cast in favor of preserving the very status quo that DEI efforts are designed to transform.

— Nicholas Pearce

Never mind that this strawman of a myth has been deconstructed by decades of research that illustrates how diversity can enhance teams’ creativity, innovation, and performance. For some leaders who are DEI-sympathetic but struggle with the believer-to-builder transition, being confronted with this pseudo-logic can often be just enough to encumber—if not totally extinguish—their will to act. This insidious and pervasive rhetoric allows well-meaning executives who advocate for DEI to congratulate themselves for trying their best while absolving themselves—and the host of senior and mid-level managers who often peddle this prejudiced pablum—of any accountability for not doing their best to deliver measurable DEI results. Being prepared to call out and combat this myth can help leaders overcome resistance, not only when it comes to diversifying their workforces but also their roster of suppliers and business partners. As Allstate President and CEO Tom Wilson wisely remarked on the heels of a newsworthy $1.2B bond deal transacted exclusively using investment banks owned by people of color, women, and veterans, “Equity is good for all of us!”

Be at Peace with the Fact That You Will Be Criticized—No Matter What

Equity may be good for all of us, but the process certainly doesn’t always feel good; it can be quite messy. To be sure, Biden and his team most likely braced themselves for the impassioned criticism that would result from Jackson’s nomination—both from those who called his commitment to nominating a Black woman “offensive” and tantamount to “affirmative racial discrimination” and from those who criticized his focus on Black women instead of prospective nominees from other underrepresented or historically disadvantaged groups. Nevertheless, Biden made the decision to nominate Jackson. The road to zero progress is paved with good intentions that were never acted upon out of fear—fear of being misunderstood or attacked, fear of losing the support of key leaders who oppose your efforts, or even the fear of simply making some people unhappy and uncomfortable.

Ironically, the very empathy that enables executives to build relationships and champion DEI can also undermine a leader’s will to take bold, decisive, DEI-advancing actions that may foment controversy or attract criticism. When not balanced with moral clarity and courage, empathy can turn otherwise visionary leaders into ineffective people-pleasers who just want everyone to feel good. Such leaders can be easily paralyzed by their high sensitivity to the criticism that comes with staking out a bold position at the vanguard of change on DEI. Sadly, though, doing nothing is not the same as doing no harm—inaction is a decisive vote cast in favor of preserving the very status quo that DEI efforts are designed to transform. At the end of the day, even empathetic leaders must actually lead. Biden’s action is proof that leaders will never be able to please both the DEI believers and the blockers at the same time. Being all-in on DEI will lead to disappointment—leaders just have to choose whom they can and cannot live with disappointing, including themselves.

Leadership in these times is not for the faint of heart and is certainly not a popularity contest. In fact, courageous leaders will be misunderstood, maligned, and even mishandled. Advancing DEI requires courage because transformational change is never easy or universally embraced. Critics will always criticize, but builders must build. In the case of Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to the Supreme Court, President Biden made a values-based, legacy-defining decision that will loudly echo through the corridors of history. For those of us leaders who really do believe in the value and importance of DEI but have had difficulty with translating our intent to impact, Biden’s approach to the Jackson nomination can inspire us to finally get unstuck—for good.


This article originally appeared in Forbes.

Featured Faculty

Clinical Associate Professor of Management & Organizations

Most Popular This Week
  1. 3 Tips for Reinventing Your Career After a Layoff
    It’s crucial to reassess what you want to be doing instead of jumping at the first opportunity.
    woman standing confidently
  2. College Campuses Are Becoming More Diverse. But How Much Do Students from Different Backgrounds Actually Interact?
    Increasing diversity has been a key goal, “but far less attention is paid to what happens after we get people in the door.”
    College quad with students walking away from the center
  3. When Do Open Borders Make Economic Sense?
    A new study provides a window into the logic behind various immigration policies.
    How immigration affects the economy depends on taxation and worker skills.
  4. Which Form of Government Is Best?
    Democracies may not outlast dictatorships, but they adapt better.
    Is democracy the best form of government?
  5. Podcast: Does Your Life Reflect What You Value?
    On this episode of The Insightful Leader, a former CEO explains how to organize your life around what really matters—instead of trying to do it all.
  6. 5 Ways to Improve Diversity Training, According to a New Study
    All too often, these programs are ineffective and short-lived. But they don’t have to be.
    diversity training session
  7. How Has Marketing Changed over the Past Half-Century?
    Phil Kotler’s groundbreaking textbook came out 55 years ago. Sixteen editions later, he and coauthor Alexander Chernev discuss how big data, social media, and purpose-driven branding are moving the field forward.
    people in 1967 and 2022 react to advertising
  8. Your Team Doesn’t Need You to Be the Hero
    Too many leaders instinctively try to fix a crisis themselves. A U.S. Army colonel explains how to curb this tendency in yourself and allow your teams to flourish.
    person with red cape trying to put out fire while firefighters stand by.
  9. Immigrants to the U.S. Create More Jobs than They Take
    A new study finds that immigrants are far more likely to found companies—both large and small—than native-born Americans.
    Immigrant CEO welcomes new hires
  10. Podcast: China’s Economy Is in Flux. Here’s What American Businesses Need to Know.
    On this episode of The Insightful Leader: the end of “Zero Covid,” escalating geopolitical tensions, and China’s potentially irreplaceable role in the global supply chain.
  11. What Went Wrong at AIG?
    Unpacking the insurance giant's collapse during the 2008 financial crisis.
    What went wrong during the AIG financial crisis?
  12. What Happens to Worker Productivity after a Minimum Wage Increase?
    A pay raise boosts productivity for some—but the impact on the bottom line is more complicated.
    employees unload pallets from a truck using hand carts
  13. How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?
    Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
    How are biracial people perceived in terms of race
  14. Why Well-Meaning NGOs Sometimes Do More Harm than Good
    Studies of aid groups in Ghana and Uganda show why it’s so important to coordinate with local governments and institutions.
    To succeed, foreign aid and health programs need buy-in and coordination with local partners.
  15. How Much Do Campaign Ads Matter?
    Tone is key, according to new research, which found that a change in TV ad strategy could have altered the results of the 2000 presidential election.
    Political advertisements on television next to polling place
  16. How Experts Make Complex Decisions
    By studying 200 million chess moves, researchers shed light on what gives players an advantage—and what trips them up.
    two people playing chess
  17. Jeff Ubben Explains His “Anti-ESG ESG” Investment Strategy
    In a recent conversation with Kellogg’s Robert Korajczyk, the hedge-fund leader breaks down his unique approach to mission-driven investing.
    smokestacks, wind turbine, solar panel
  18. Why Do Some People Succeed after Failing, While Others Continue to Flounder?
    A new study dispels some of the mystery behind success after failure.
    Scientists build a staircase from paper
More in Leadership