Where you work, do ordinary lives matter?

George Floyd’s legacy could deeply unify - or be remembered in history as a lost opportunity

In a few weeks, we will see clearly which organisations took George Floyd’s killing to heart. Those who asked themselves tough questions will reach the first anniversary with momentum and much still to do. Others will approach 25 May 2021 with a sense of missed opportunity. But even these could still make Floyd’s legacy transformative and unifying.

George Floyd was not only a Black man. If we pay him the courtesy (nearly always paid to white people) of looking to learn not just from the blackness of his skin and the redness of his blood but also from his life and character, we can unlock something important.

I began thinking this way when The Times published its Floyd obituary at the turn of the year. ‘In common with most other newspapers around the world’ it began – not the Thunderer’s usual lofty perspective – The Times had not published one in May. Seven months later, they gave him two-thirds of a page.

The obituary named several family members of this ‘6ft 7in gentle giant’. It spoke of Floyd’s sporting promise and his work as a truck driver, security guard and rapper. It mentioned jail time as well as Floyd helping in a Christian mentoring programme. ‘[The programme] helped him to move 1,200 miles across America to the state of Minnesota. George Floyd lived with two room-mates in a red clapboard duplex apartment on the edge of St Louis Park, with a Bible by his side.’ It finished with his killing time – a police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes 46 seconds outside a Minneapolis corner store.

This was no New Year’s Day piece complete with lessons The Times had learned, such as how its reporting might change in the future. Instead, George Floyd was a loose end whom they chose to tidy up on 31 December. The piece reproduces the words ‘Black Lives Matter‘, but to me, its message was  ‘some Black deaths you’ve heard about matter’. I began asking myself what it would mean, especially in organisations and workplaces, for ordinary lives to matter.

For sure, sound employment foundations would need to be in place – including how much people are paid, what happens when they fall sick, and how are suggestions and grievances treated. But ordinary lives goes beyond workers to embrace customers and communities affected by the company’s products, taxpaying policies, pollution or waste.

Ordinary lives matter has something to say about companies targeting opioid abusers, mis-selling flammable building cladding or scooping so much shareholder pie out of a publicly paid-for lunch box that what’s left for the recipients is a disgrace.

It’s worth noticing what organisations do when they celebrate front-line colleagues exceeding targets or notably exemplifying corporate values. The celebration is good, but also selfish. Companies offer rewards or praise like this to someone ‘ordinary’ to amplify their own values. It’s not bad, but it’s not enough to show ordinary lives matter.

How different it would be to listen to George Floyd’s life (or your own) because that life mattered. That would mean patience, listening to a story whose uncomfortable or time-consuming bits are left in. That would mean respect, appreciating the privilege of hearing a story from which the listener might learn something.

Coaches work at this kind of listening every day. The most common way we work out whether our own lives matter is by who listens to us and how well. If the answer is Oprah for several hours, then we have a pretty clear answer.

But I don’t believe in putting celebrities into one camp and viewers into another. I believe all humans live multi-facetted lives which have both extraordinary and ordinary potential. The two opposites are in fact connected. To lack either dimension of life is deadening, whether you are called Harry, Meghan or George. To paraphrase the late advertising guru David Ogilvy, if you listen to every life long enough and hard enough, it will disclose its extraordinariness  ̶  and its ordinariness. Both are precious.

If all of us need ordinary lives, do those lives matter in your workplace? Often the honest answer would be ‘not much’. The Times is unlikely to devote much space in 2021 to truck-driving, security-guarding, time-serving rappers who stay alive but achieve no more than Floyd had done before last May. But what if in your workplace the answer was ‘yes’? How would you know?

For sure, employment basics such as those above would need to be in place. And noisy celebrations of Salesperson of the Month wouldn’t be enough. Here’s my suggestion: imagine the organisation’s leaders being quizzed on what they have learned in the past year from an encounter with a junior colleague, an ordinary customer or a local stakeholder group. Something unexpected – something which made a difference. For leaders to earn the privilege of listening to these stories would be time-consuming, but making the effort habitual would be very powerful. You would know if you mattered.

Imagine it being true not of one organisation but of businesses generally, that they aimed to be places of extraordinary achievement in which ordinary lives mattered? Part of George Floyd’s legacy is a Black legacy, very rightly so. But his legacy could be more than that: because he was not only a black man, and it wasn’t just his death which mattered.

Douglas Board (@BoardWryter) is a coach and a writer about leadership. His latest book ‘Elites: can you rise to the top without losing your soul?’, published on 29 March by Eye Books, unearths unexpected connections between the ordinary and the extraordinary.

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