Editor’s Note: Hosted by 2U Chief Strategy and Engagement Officer David Sutphen, EDU: Live is a new monthly LinkedIn Live series of conversations with leaders from academia, business, and civil society who are passionate about creating greater equity, access, and opportunity in higher education and beyond. Drawing from his experiences at 2U, his work with the civil rights community, and his service on education-related, non-profit boards, Sutphen talks about opening doors of opportunity with those who have walked through them—and are using their positions to empower others to follow. Visit the EDU: Live LinkedIn page to keep up-to-date on the full series, watch past recordings, and register for the next episode.
The power of emotional intelligence, authenticity, and agility. Cultivating opportunities for more Black leadership. Becoming a formidable diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) change agent. Last Wednesday, for the premiere episode of EDU: Live, Morehouse College President David A. Thomas shared compelling insights on these topics and many more with series host David Sutphen.
A preeminent scholar on organizational leadership, Dr. Thomas’s desire to make a difference in the world was piqued at a young age. Growing up in segregated Kansas City, Missouri, he dreamed of graduating from Morehouse just like his hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Given a full ride to Yale instead, he earned his PhD in Organizational Behavior Studies there before going on to teach at Wharton and Harvard and leading Georgetown’s business school. Then, in 2017, Dr. Thomas’s dream to go to Morehouse finally came true: He became the first non-Morehouse graduate in 50 years to accept the title of president.
Last week, Dr. Thomas’s journey led him to the EDU: Live stage. Read on for highlights from the inspirational discussion.
“There’s the Seed, and There’s the Soil”
Two scholarly publications that Dr. Thomas co-authored for Harvard Business Review—1996’s seminal “Making Differences Matter: A New Paradigm for Managing Diversity” and 2018’s “Beating the Odds: Leadership Lessons from Senior African-American Women”—served as a catalyst for probing conversation. Sutphen, who considers Dr. Thomas both a mentor and friend, said he was particularly struck by what the latter article identified as three interconnected skills possessed by every female C-suite executive in the study:
- emotional intelligence, or as Dr. Thomas described, the ability to empathize with other people but also self-regulate “so you don’t blow yourself up;”
- authenticity, or the power to move beyond the “bicultural stress” of living separate Black and white worlds and be your true self in every context; and
- agility, or the capacity to “learn from your practice . . . and adapt to situations and bring yourself to them as fully as is necessary, and as you can.”
As part of the discussion, Sutphen asked Dr. Thomas to elaborate on how these three skills come into play today for organizations and leaders seeking to create change and awareness of circumstance to meet the moment.
Watch the first episode of EDU: Live featuring Morehouse President David A. Thomas
“The way to think about it is,” Dr. Thomas explained, “there’s the seed, and there’s the soil—[and] what may be unique to that seed that then has to be planted in the soil. [It’s] really about having a perspective around what the value of diversity is that connects it to the work of the organization and the purpose of the organization. To do that, you have to create the conditions that make it easier for people to bring that combination of emotional intelligence, authenticity, and agility to the work. Because even today, I would say that there are companies, and they are all around us, [and] they have no senior Black women. It’s not by accident . . . they’re not creating the soil.”
One way companies keep the soil dry and infertile, Dr. Thomas said, is by letting leadership “pigeon-hole” Black employees by telling them “the only time your perspective matters is when we’re talking about something that has to do with Black people . . . as opposed to learning from different perspectives to make the environment better. Learning and effectiveness is about creating an environment that allows people to bring their diversity to improve the work, and the process, and the workplace. What we’ve seen in organizations where that happens is transformation.”
“Tilling the Soil Beyond Your Gates”
February’s EDU: Live episode was a timely one for Dr. Thomas to join: It aired just three weeks after Morehouse College—one of the nation’s top Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)—announced its planned launch of Morehouse Online with 2U. Designed for non-traditional students with existing college credit and adult life experience seeking to complete their bachelor’s degrees, Morehouse Online will also serve men who previously enrolled at Morehouse but left before completing their undergraduate experience.
Before talking about the vision behind Morehouse Online, Dr. Thomas took a moment to emphasize how educational institutions everywhere need to start redesigning the way they think about teaching, and getting students to engage with each other as more of a collective enterprise, in order to meet more diverse demographics of students where they are.
You have to create the conditions that make it easier for people to bring . . . emotional intelligence, authenticity, and agility to the work.— Dr. David A. Thomas, President, Morehouse College
“[Morehouse Online] started with the development of our strategic plan,” he said, “and out of [that] came a strategic theme called ‘Morehouse Beyond Borders.’ It was really focused on, how do we maximize our impact and service to the world and be relevant to opportunities and challenges that uniquely face Black men and men of color? That got us admitting to ourselves . . . for 153 years, we’ve only had one model of education: They come to this hilltop, they spend four to five years, and then they leave and go change the world. Well, what would it look like if Morehouse went to the world? We can open the aperture if we [build] an online platform vs. build more dorm rooms.”
Dr. Thomas pointed out that more than 3.4 million Black men over the age of 25 in the U.S. have some college credit but no degree. And he emphasized that, for Black men in particular, a college degree can have a significant impact, including a one million dollar difference in lifetime earnings, not to mention giving that individual a voice. He said Morehouse leadership looked at what the college uniquely excels in—the development and education of men—and decided they needed to make that more available to the world and to more non-traditional students: older adults, those who have spent time working, those with families, those who can’t physically get to Morehouse, etc.
“It’s like sharing your soil!” Sutphen commented, returning to Dr. Thomas’s earlier analogy.
“That’s exactly right!” Dr. Thomas said. “Or, like tilling the soil beyond your gates. There’s a bigger landscape where good seed can plant and grow.”
Memorable Advice: “Is There Anything I Can Do to Help You?”
Bringing the discussion and Q&A to a close, Sutphen shared a personal memory from a Black men’s dinner he hosted nearly a decade ago. At the dinner, Dr. Thomas, who was the special guest, explained that there are many successful Black men who are too prideful to ask for help, even when they need some.
“He told us, ‘At the end of every business meeting . . . make sure someone asks everyone if there is anything I can do to help you,’” recalled Sutphen. “Because it’s a lot easier when somebody asks you that question to be honest about the help that you need than it is to be the person who has to put their cards on the table when you don’t know if other people are going to do that. That piece of advice has not only helped me make a difference in my friends’ lives, but also a bunch of friends have been able to help me as a result. So I say [to Dr. Thomas], anything I can do to be helpful to you, I will always be there to provide it.”
“I appreciate that, David,” Dr. Thomas replied. “And I just want you to know, you are one of the most generous spirits I have ever encountered. That’s why it’s easy for me to join you and 2U in a partnership with purpose to continue to make a difference in the world.”
Registration is now open for the next EDU: Live episode scheduled for Wednesday, March 24 with guest Dr. Lynn Wooten, president of Simmons University. The episode scheduled for Wednesday, April 28 will welcome Dr. Alvin Tillery, founder of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University. To keep up-to-date on all episodes, visit the EDU: Live LinkedIn page.
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