Karrah Herring, J.D.
Chief Equity, Inclusion & Opportunity Officer
Office of Governor Eric J. Holcomb, State of Indiana
“When a clown moves into a palace, the clown doesn’t become king, the palace becomes a circus. One person can impact an entire environment for better or worse.“
If you are not ready to place the needs of others as priority over your needs, you are not ready for leadership.
If you take things personally and are emotionally reactive to triggers, you are not ready for leadership. If you can not motivate yourself beyond feelings of being tired, frustrated, under-appreciated, misunderstood and lonely, you are not ready for leadership.
If you are not ready to roll up your sleeves and put in the tough work to show your value, even if it means early mornings, late nights and inconvenient sacrifices, you are not ready for leadership.
If you think having an important title means people will follow you, you are not ready for leadership.
If you think leading means, “what you say goes” and everyone must fall in line behind you or hit the highway, you are not ready for leadership.
If you have not trained yourself to pursue purpose over personal preference and divine calling over comfort, you are not ready for leadership.
My father taught my siblings and me that we can show up in the environments we are graced to exist in as thermometers or thermostats. The “Thermostat Leader” sets the tone and temperature in the environment. The “Thermometer Leader” simply reacts to the tone and temperature in the room. It is impossible to set the tone and temperature if you do not take the time to be introspective and self-reflective about who you are, what motivates you, what triggers you and how you want to show up.
For me, leadership was, is and will continue to be a journey of personal growth, intellectual learning and genuine humility. There was a time when I was the “Thermometer Leader.” Training myself to respond to challenging and triggering situations dispassionately took time and intentionality. Training myself to push myself beyond my temporary emotions, so that I did not make reactionary decisions with permanent consequences, took mentorship and sound guidance from trusted advisors. And even with all of that, I am still a work in progress.
I am blessed to speak for audiences across Indiana and our great nation. Following my speeches, I am often asked, what are the values and or leadership qualities that are most important to me. First and foremost, I believe a strong leader must operate with integrity. Integrity is deeper than honesty. Integrity is soundness of moral character. It means you do the right thing when no one is watching. It means you move with ethical and moral principles even when cutting corners might be the easier or more popular approach. However, it is imperative that integrity not be equated to perfection. Operating with integrity does not mean you are a perfect being without flaws and failures.
It means that while you hold yourself to a standard of sound moral character, you also hold yourself accountable to your mistakes. Which leads me to my second leadership value, accountability.
When you lead a team, holding yourself accountable to others is only one aspect of true accountability. The other aspect is holding yourself accountable for your actions and decisions as well as the actions and decisions of those you lead.
The book “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win” by two former Navy Seals, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin holds many leadership nuggets which reflect my attitude towards extreme ownership. Jocko writes, “I had to take complete ownership of what went wrong. That is what a leader does — even if it means getting fired. If anyone was to be blamed and fired for what happened, let it be me.” If you are not willing to fall on the sword, then leadership may not be for you.
In my opinion, when leading a team, if mistakes are made, the leader is responsible. Somewhere along the line the leader dropped the ball on communicating the mission effectively or the leader misunderstood the capabilities of the team thus putting them at a disadvantage with a project beyond the scope of their knowledge and skills.
As leaders, even when we have the best intentions, the impact of a failed project has to be on us. We must understand who can handle what and when, and we must articulate the expectations clearly. Simply put, we must deploy the right people on the right mission with a clear and well articulated plan, and the likelihood of success is high.
The third leadership value that is important to me is operating with empathy. In my opinion, the word empathy is thrown around as a buzz word for those seeking to simply present themselves as empathetic leaders because it is the flavor of the month. But truly empathetic leaders show their ability to imaginatively enter into another’s feelings by action. I can preach empathy all day long, but if I don’t show up for my people when they need it most, my words are hollow and superficial. Our teams are filled with individuals with a multiplicity of differences. Some people are married with kids, some are married without. Some people are single with kids, some are single without. Some people have a deep love for their little fur babies, and some are even caring for aging parents or a disabled family member.
Truly empathetic leaders understand that, yes, you hold your team accountable to a high standard of excellence with their work product, but when life happens, you allow your team the space to handle their personal affairs. I do not have to be a parent to take the time and acknowledge that if I have parents working on my team, they may need to work remotely or leave early to navigate the needs of their children. I do not have to personally have dealt with anxiety and emotional stress to create space for my team to know it is okay to take time to address their mental health. Empathetic leaders read the room and make adjustments for their most important commodity, their people.
The final leadership value that is non-negotiable, in my opinion, is civility. Rude, dismissive and hostile leaders create rude, dismissive and hostile environments. Those types of cultures breed fear and retribution. Leaders who operate with genuine politeness create a tone of genuine politeness throughout the team. Civility does not mean you will not have disagreements, it means you disagree constructively in order to respectfully hear and reflect on perspectives different than your own. It means you cultivate a culture of healthy dialogue where the team feels comfortable speaking up and challenging the status quo without fear of retribution.
It means the environment is one where people feel respected, welcomed and heard. Treating adults with respect can not be emphasized enough. The days of leaders belittling their direct reports and speaking to them like children are coming to an end. People who want respect must extend respect. We all need grace, so we should all extend it through genuinely civil interactions, especially when you are the leader.
As I reflect on the leadership of our nation within politics, business, the faith community, higher education and more, I am grappling with both despair and hope. I mourn for the chaos that has ensued around us. I especially mourn the divisive rhetoric that has caused far too many to operate with incivility and outright hatred toward one another. At the same time, I am hopeful.
I believe there are leaders rising up who will set the tone and temperature; leaders who will choose to create a palace environment over the chaos of a misguided circus. I am hopeful we will see more leaders rise up who will cultivate a culture where we listen to the perspectives and experiences of others in order to learn and build relationships and at the same time create space to remain true to our values and deep personal convictions.
Leading with integrity, accountability, empathy and civility is needed more now than ever before. As we start to see leaders come to the forefront who pursue leading with purpose over personal preference and chasing divine calling over convenience, we must support them because that type of authentic servant-leadership is tough and often isolating. When those leaders present themselves, I for one, will be eager to follow.
Karrah Herring received her Bachelor of Arts in Communications/Public Relations from Purdue University (’05) and her Juris Doctorate from Valparaiso University School of Law (’11). On November 19, 2020, Indiana governor, Eric Holcomb announced his appointment of Karrah to his cabinet as Indiana’s first-ever Chief Equity, Inclusion and Opportunity Officer for the state.