Platt’s Perspective: What We Can All Learn From The Donald Sterling Debacle

By: Mike Platt

As I write this, the reaction to L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s clearly outrageous remarks is less than a week old. For the record, I had never heard of Sterling before this week. I have come to know of him only from the collective outcry over his outlandish, absurd comments that were caught on tape for the world to hear.

While I agree with the majority of the criticism over Sterling’s actions and ignorance, it made me stop and think: Is someone guilty if they simply think racist thoughts or acknowledge internal biases against others? Or are they guilty only when they say what they think out loud? Or are they guilty only if they act on their prejudices?

Mike Platt

Mike Platt

Or are they guilty only if what they say is recorded for all to hear.

We all have biases and make quick judgments about other people – it’s been hard-wired into our brains for 100,000 years to help quickly identify friend from foe. Whether stirred by race, ethnic backgrounds, perceptions of age, gender, weight, whether someone is vegetarian or drives a certain kind of car, where someone went to school, or where someone comes from – all of these drive internal judgments, thoughts and biases that most of us in a civilized society try not to act on. So where in the spectrum do we cross over from “being human” to being the subject of intense disdain? In Sterling’s case, it seems obvious that he crossed the line. But where is that line?

If, as a leader of your firm, you can look in the mirror and see someone with absolutely no biases or prejudices staring back, congratulations – you’re one in 10 million. But chances are, most of us make judgments about people based on something other than the facts of a situation.

Is it acceptable to think bad things toward the person who cuts you off on the freeway? Most of us would say that our thoughts are our own. But when it comes to actions, a line between right and wrong comes into focus. Some of us may yell at the bad driver, but would you start chasing the car? What if you caused an accident? At what point is the line crossed?

Think about your role as a leader. Do you recognize any internal biases against any of your team members based on something other than performance? Do you look at that short guy with Coke-bottle glasses differently than his taller, less optically challenged peer? Do you think people who think like you are naturally better at what they do than others who may think differently? Does the mere act of thinking these thoughts make you guilty of unfair biases or prejudices?

Now think about how these biases or prejudices affect your actions. Would you hesitate to bring someone to a client because of the way they look? Are you more eager to encourage, promote and develop a superstar who shares your hobbies or religious beliefs or pedigree over someone who comes from a different background? Do you find yourself not bringing that short guy with the Coke-bottle glasses to your best clients because of the “message” it might send?

We can all agree that if you made some stupid Sterling-like comments at a firmwide meeting you’ve crossed the line. People would have a legitimate reason to judge you and question your leadership authority. But what about just thinking these thoughts? What about subconsciously acting on these thoughts?

Unconscious biases are complicated. For the most part, as 21st century successful business men and women, we have evolved a lot over the last 50 years when prejudices were more common in the workplace. But as human beings we still make internal judgments about the people we work with and either consciously or unconsciously may still act on those biases.

It takes a consistent effort and a fully aware leader to acknowledge his or her own biases, and once you recognize they exist, you are capable of pushing against them and ensuring that they do not influence your actions. Let’s all learn from the Sterling affair. Let’s look in the mirror and figure out what we need to do to become better leaders because of it.