How “Wokeness” Intersects with the C-Suite

Should a company be woke?

Should leaders be woke?

If a leader or company is striving to be woke as the goal, then they’re moving in the wrong direction.

This article explains why wokeness shouldn’t be the end goal and instead why leaders and organizations should have clear goals, initiatives, and KPIs.

Those behaviors may or may not be called “woke,” and that’s okay.


What Does It Mean To Be “Woke?”

The answer depends on who is being asked. 

Looking at the historical birth of the term, it came from African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and simply means “to be awake.” It was used by Black leaders for decades to call upon Black people to wake up to mental slavery. By this definition, no other culture or race can be woke.

However, in modern America, the term applies to anyone awake or alert to all forms of social injustice. In one half of our culture, it has the power to mobilize an important message, while in the other half, the term can alienate just as quickly as it can mobilize.

Let’s return to the term’s true meaning —  that wokeness gives a voice to the perspective of minorities — allowing us to recognize injustices and address them appropriately.


Are the Terms ‘Woke’ and ‘Cancel Culture’ the Same Thing?

“Cancel culture is the negative reflection of woke.” – Tomas van Dijk

While they are two different topics, the media tends to marry “wokeism” with cancel culture.

Most people view cancel culture as an action taken to hold others accountable. But some may associate the term with censorship, erasing history, restriction of free speech, or as a way for people to cancel anyone they don’t agree with. 

As a leader, knowing the difference between the woke conversation and cancel culture is important. Not only knowing the difference but knowing how it may impact your organization, yourself, and your team. Every business is susceptible to these ideas, which leads to the point of this article.


How Does the Woke Conversation Impact People in Corporate Leadership Roles?

Most company leaders aren’t deliberately deciding to “go woke.” Nor should they be.

Leaders often struggle with this topic, as it can be easy to become caught up in the perception of being either “woke” or not. The notion that they must wear this label and promote it is a common misconception. Labels are labels — and frankly, they’re subjective. Everyone’s interpretation of those labels can vary greatly. So no matter what, someone isn’t happy.

Companies should have a purpose-driven mission. The mission should be made achievable through clearly defined goals. Once goals are defined, the company can take specific action to reach those goals.

Now, if someone (whether internal or external) chooses to call that business or leader woke as a result of their mission or actions, then so be it.

Same from the other side: if someone calls a business “not woke” due to their mission, values, or behaviors, so be it.

As an organization or leader, what’s most important is clarity of your values, goals, and mission. You must be willing to build towards that mission regardless of what is being said about you or your organization. 

I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t reflect on what people say about the organization or yourself.  Or that you shouldn’t consider what they’re saying and potentially create change (since that’s what all great leaders should do). However, if every time you hear talk of “wokeness” (in either direction) and you respond with behavior or actions that don’t align with the company’s mission, then you have misstepped. 


What Responsibility Do Leaders Have To Become Part of the Woke Conversation?

These are the types of questions that are framed incorrectly.

Leaders have no responsibility to become part of the “woke” conversation. Becoming woke is not a goal that any leader or organization should have.

Instead, leaders should take full responsibility for engaging in dialogue that aligns with the company’s mission and values, how the company treats its employees, and how it can improve the workplace for all current and future employees.

If those discussions touch upon matters of injustice and are therefore deemed “woke” by some individuals, it’s out of business leaders’ control. 

The issue being discussed and the conversation itself is more important than the label. 

A leader’s position in the company requires that they not only listen to their employees and collaborate with the appropriate response and follow-on actions but that they also be aware of issues and initiate the conversations before other folks do.

It’s Important for Leaders To Remove Any Connotation of Being ‘Woke’

Leaders may be judged and labeled for being woke — and that’s okay. We get labeled many things. It’s part of leadership. If it happens, we must remember to bring it back to the original topic or issue being discussed and de-label it, allowing us to focus on the issue itself. Ask yourself and company leaders: 

Is this issue important? 

Do we need to have a conversation about it? 

Does a discussion about this issue align with the company’s mission and goals?

Does this issue impact our employees, and do we need to find a solution?

Are there injustices or inequities within our company, and how can we initiate a conversation about these issues?

These questions are where your energy and attention should be focused. Companies shouldn’t seek out wokeness or worry about being labeled as woke.


K. Parkin Consultancy: Helping Female Executives Navigate Today’s Woke Conversation

K. Parkin Consultancy specializes in helping female executives navigate corporate and career challenges, like the responsibility of participating in relevant woke conversations.

Consider K. Parkin Consultancy a docent — guiding leaders through the intricacies of cultivating a woke culture that addresses the various complexities and concerns among employee resource groups.

Together, K. Parkin Consultancy and business leaders can propel companies to the future in the midst of the “woke” conversation.