Rita Johnson-Mills shared a powerful message about fairness at the Good Leadership Breakfast.

Rita Johnson-Mills shared a powerful message about fairness at the Good Leadership Breakfast.

“Don’t let anyone, at any time take away the power you have over your own direction,” she answered with passionate intensity. The question I asked Rita Johnson-Mills last Friday at the Good Leadership Breakfast: “What was the message you shared with students, when you were the first African American ever invited to speak at your high school’s graduation?”

Steely resolve

Professionally, Rita Johnson-Mills is the President and CEO of United Healthcare Community Plan of Tennessee. Personally she is a recovering workaholic whose 11 year old son mocked and ridiculed her into letting go of her superhero leadership attitude about work. She was working one morning during a Florida family vacation when her son confronted her: “PTO for you means ‘pretend’ time off!” he said with a snarky tone. “We left, went to breakfast and played outside and you didn’t even notice.”

“At first I was angry at my smart-mouthed son,” she quipped. “But then I realized that I wasn’t being fair to my family or my team – from that moment on, I stopped working on vacations and let my team do their work when I’m gone. Today, I’m a much better person, and a better leader.”

Promoting fairness

Rita and I discussed how she felt about being told she could not go to college!

Rita and I discussed how she felt about being told she could not go to college!

The theme for the October breakfast was “promoting fairness” – one of the four Cornerstones of Goodness.  Fairness is the most explosive of the four Cornerstones of Goodness: when we feel we are violated, or experiencing injustice…it triggers a “fight” mechanism. But fighting is not good leadership.

That’s not easy, because so many things about leadership don’t seem fair! If you dare to have a vision that’s different – or put yourself on the line for something extraordinary – someone, somewhere is going to make things difficult. Rita Johnson-Mills was told by her high school counselor: “You people don’t go to college! You get a job and have babies.” How was that fair? Rita is my role model for promoting fairness.

Here’s the most important thing to remember about fairness: for leaders, it’s not a “to me” concept…it’s a “through me” concept. Our job as leaders is to absorb and filter what feels “unfair” and find a way to spread goodness anyway.

Onstage, I demonstrated the concept with a red, juicy, crisp, delicious apple: we all know when we squeeze an apple really hard…we get pure and wholesome apple juice. Liquid goodness!

The apple is a symbol of goodness in the world. When life squeezes you, does goodness flow from you?

The apple is a symbol of goodness in the world. When life squeezes you, does goodness flow from you?

But here’s the tester…what happens when life squeezes you?! When you are feeling sick or tired – squeezed by a difficult deadline…or slandered by a colleague or competitor. What comes from you? Is it bitter, toxic, edgy? Or, do you radiate goodness?

Good leaders radiate goodness by demonstrating “fairness” is not a “too me” concept, it’s a “through me” concept. And they do so even when they get squeezed really hard.

Please share with me: who is your role model for promoting fairness?