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8 Rules for Leaders to Break to Combat Social, Economic and Racial Injustices

To truly help individuals and ourselves, we need to bust up the system, swim upstream and avoid the herd mentality. We need to take a step back and truly understand our own roles in society — and by doing so, to let go of outdated notions.

After working 26 years in the for-profit sector of our economy and nine years with the poor, forgotten and demonized people of our society, I see life much differently. As leaders, we must lead in a different style, be on the forefront of change and invest our energies into those who society has left behind. We must lead with mutuality, compassion, and kinship.

Homeboy Industries is the largest and most successful gang re-entry program in the world. For over 30 years, in the context of employment, Homeboy has been helping men and women get out of the gang lifestyle. As they transform their lives, these individuals show us why people should not be defined by the worst thing they’ve done. Homeboy has helped thousands of people heal from complex trauma and become contributing members of our society — even when it seems like everyone else in society has given up on them. In many ways, this effort can be viewed as a fight against racial and economic inequities — for the populations we serve are underprivileged people of color who have never been given a fair chance in our society.

Homeboy Industries runs several social enterprises that provide the context and space for people to stabilize their life and positively move it forward. Our business model and brand are about facilitating transformations — enabling people to move past their pain and become the person they want to be.

To truly help individuals and ourselves, we must not be so rule-bound. We need to bust up the system, swim upstream and avoid the herd mentality. We need to take a step back and truly understand our own roles in society — and by doing so, to let go of outdated notions.

To that end, here are 8 key rules for forward-thinking leaders to break:

  1. Defying Online Algorithms with Authentic, Impactful Storytelling

    Join us as representatives from BarkleyOKRP lead a thought-provoking discussion with two brands that care deeply about their workers' rights and wellbeing, Tony's Chocolonely and Driscoll's, about how to successfully involve consumers in social-justice issues with authentic storytelling that defies online algorithms — Friday, May 10, at Brand-Led Culture Change.

    In the world, it’s “us” and “them.” It’s harder to demonize someone you know — relationship counteracts tribalism and judgmentalism. Get to know your coworkers. Seek to understand the lived experiences and histories of those who come from a culture different from your own. Don’t demonize anyone.

  2. We should always strive for certainty. Certainty will blind you to your own biases and conclusions. We need to be comfortable managing in times of uncertainty, particularly in human-services organizations. I broke my rule of certainty and instead joined a non-profit organization working with gang members that was constantly running out of money.

  3. Every person is responsible for himself or herself. Every person who is looking to be in our program has the desire to “do good,” “to be better,” “to be the person they are meant to be.” The struggle is that they don’t know how to make this transition on their own and the structural barriers that exist are insurmountable for most, regardless of how hard they work. What can we do in our organizations to facilitate transitions for those who are struggling?

  4. Give the exact same support to everyone. To truly provide leadership opportunities for people with different lived experiences, we need to overinvest in them and set them up in positions that play to their strengths — which may require short-term clerical or administrative support. Don’t be worried about some people getting more help than others in developing your next generation of leaders. As you’re raising people’s skillsets, be flexible and generous in providing the additional support they need on an individual level.

  5. In this world, there are winners and losers. Let’s dare to think always in terms of win-win. One person having success does not mean that success is taken from someone else. Generosity and gratitude need to be cultivated and put into action so that everyone can succeed. This can happen for all, not just for those who work in an organization like Homeboy — you can shift your mindset even in large, bureaucratic organizations. It’s about an individual mindset that spreads into a collective mindset.

  6. Merit-driven culture is good for everybody. Creating a workplace culture where one can thrive is the goal. As [Homeboy founder] Father Greg says, “Achievements are a by-product of thriving.” At Homeboy, our efforts are focused on providing an atmosphere where people flourish and blossom so that they find their own worth. The key is not measuring merit but facilitating joy in the workplace. This opens the door to experiencing deep moments of grace, individually and collectively. Imagine a society that collectively pursues and reaches the goal of having thriving workplaces. This is when we as a society can do away with meritocracy and just celebrate achievements.

  7. I take care of me; you take care of you. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “Ultimately, our greatest joy is when we seek to do good for others.” Our goal as leaders is to facilitate organizational joy as we, on an individual level, move ourselves to joy — a joy that is pure, openhearted and humble.

  8. Responsibility is a burden. Everyone should pursue joy. In that pursuit, I found my path forward — and burdens turned to joys. The stressors of the responsibility I once felt are now secondary to the times when I found joy. Joy is a powerful state. Finding joy takes time, contemplation and openness. Once there, everything else in life just falls into place.

These are just 8 of the 55 rules to break that are fully explained in Thomas Vozzo’s book, The Homeboy Way: A Radical Approach to Business and Life (Loyola Press, 2022).