The search mammoth Google has been forced to conduct a search of a different kind recently–one for the right reaction/response to a controversial memo circulated by James Damore, one of its engineers.
They ultimately landed on firing Damore.
The memo (here in its entirety) argued that there are biological and personality based reasons that women don’t excel in software engineering. The inflammatory memo perpetuated harmful stereotypes about women (something many experts say is rampant in Silicon Valley) and has ignited a firestorm of debate about freedom of speech versus the unchecked advance of unfounded bias.
Personally, I found another response even more powerful than the firing of Damore: that of Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube (which Google owns). Wojcicki submitted an essay to Fortune (full essay here) and in so doing became the highest-ranking female Google executive to respond.
A question from her daughter was the catalyst that spurred Wojcicki’s heartfelt editorial: “Mom, is it true that there are biological reasons why there are fewer women in tech and leadership?”
The YouTube chief describes in the essay that this question is all too pervasive in the tech industry and then opens up to share personal experiences filled with sleights, bias, and pain.
When Damore’s memo circulated, she started feeling the hurt all over again and felt it on behalf of all the women she knew it must be affecting. She goes on to say “I thought about how tragic it was that this unfounded bias was now being exposed to a new generation.”
Wojcicki also defends Google’s move to terminate Damore and ends the letter poignantly by describing how she looked at her daughter, thought of her question, and simply said, “No, it’s not true.”
I found myself feeling infuriated, frustrated, and saddened by the reality Wojcicki shared. I also found myself cheering at her response because it exuded personal leadership in three ways that we all can borrow from:
1. Show vulnerability.
The YouTube CEO shared her own experiences with tremendous vulnerability, revealing how much the continual sleights she experienced hurt.
Which kind of leader are you more drawn to–the one who stands in front of an audience and says they have all the answers and portrays an aura of being bulletproof or one who shares that they’re not omnipotent, are doing their best to get to the right answer and that they feel pain just like everyone else?
2. Exude empathy.
Wojcicki extended a compassionate hand to fellow women that must be suffering from the stinging words in the memo. Personal leadership means being sensitized to the emotions and needs of your constituents, and knowing when to extend understanding sentiment.
3. Take a stand in a pivotal moment.
Wojcicki could have stayed out of the fray. She certainly has enough to do as CEO of one of Google’s growth engines. But she recognized that this was a pivotal moment (“unfounded bias was now being exposed to a new generation”).
Despite a high likelihood of criticism one way or another, the executive took a stand.
And that’s what differentiates leadership from personal leadership.
Odds are you won’t face an issue as broadly inflammatory as this one. But in your own domain, at the right time, with your own issue, you’ll know when it’s time to step up.
Just make it personal.
This article by Scott Mautz also appeared on Inc.com. To read more Inc. articles by Scott Mautz, click here.