06/08/2015 03:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Caitlyn Jenner in the Breakroom: A Question of Organizational Leadership


The Kardashians had long ago become synonymous with "foreign," meaning "those who are not us." Millions watch not because they identify with their experiences but for the exact opposite reason. The manufactured reality of the Kardashians' lives is so distant from the way we live ours that it has become an object of (sometimes morbid) fascination.

Enter Caitlyn, formerly Bruce, Jenner. Certainly the transgender label is not new. By the time Vanity Fair ran its cover story, many others had already publicly identified themselves as transgender. I would venture to say that none of them received even a token of the attention, not to mention the support, from the general public that Caitlyn Jenner has received.

What's more, Caitlyn Jenner's transformation from the Wheaties box to the cover of Vanity Fair sparked conversation in every corner of our society, from the pulpit to the classroom and from the boardroom to the warehouse. #CaitlynJenner became the number-one trending topic on Twitter almost immediately after the Vanity Fair cover broke.

But what if it weren't foreign? What if, instead of conversation about Caitlyn Jenner in your company's breakroom, there she sat, drinking her coffee and munching on a bagel? What then? How would your company handle it? Would people praise her bravery, or, at the very least, adopt a live-and-let-live attitude? Would they welcome her, ostracize her or vote with their feet by leaving the company à la "Either 'it' goes or I go!"

To me, the image of Caitlyn Jenner in the breakroom embodies nothing less than a test of leadership. No organization is immune to change. Often, that change is unpopular and subject to rash and harsh decisions. With change comes resistance, sometimes fierce. Change is a test of leadership.

So that's my question. How would you, as a leader, handle real change? In other words, how would you drive your organization to handle Caitlyn Jenner in the breakroom?

Here's where you start:

Look inward. Before calling your lawyer, before dusting off the personnel manual, you have to look inward. Leadership doesn't mean creating policies; it means standing for the values on which they are based. It is the leader's job to show, rather than to point.

Become the embodiment of what you want to teach. I've often said that "we teach what we tolerate." But it's more than that. The truth is that we stand for what we tolerate. If you, as a leader, smile at the jokes and allow the intolerance, you come to stand for those things. If you like to tell yourself that you're better than that, be better than that.

After all, it's no sin to admit that profound differences make you uncomfortable, if in fact they do. To deny or reject your feelings, or those of others within the organization, would do you no favors. Real leaders move forward in spite of that.

The point is that core values only mean something if you stick to them when it's inconvenient. If you would raise your voice in protest of prejudice against black people, Jews or those with physical disabilities, then your voice must be raised here. Without ambiguity. Without side comments. Without even a glimmer of doubt. As a leader, your voice must be the first to be raised.

Educate at all levels. Diversity training is something that should be ingrained in your company, regardless of this current situation. Everyone should be trained. Everyone.

Your people not only should be lectured to but should be trained to work effectively with women on a mostly male construction crew, a customer wearing a hijab and those with physical limitations. This employee is no different (believe it or not). She should be treated as a member of the gender consistent with how she identifies and how she presents to the outside world, from restrooms to dress codes to personal pronouns.

Make no mistake: I understand that, as shown by recently published articles on The Huffington Post, this can be a hot-button issue. It is tough. I have heard and read about the outrage. After all, what other issue can spark both legislation and even violence over restroom use?

In fact, in a recent article by JamesMichael Nichols on The Huffington Post, app creator Harlan Kellaway talked about Refuge, an app intended to "take the anxiety and potential violence trans people face when using public restrooms away from an activity we all have a right to do in peace." How many other populations in the United States in 2015 genuinely need an app to help them find a moment of safety?

Diversity deserves more than just one meeting or, worse, a 15-minute preamble before getting down to real business. Any organization that professes tolerance as a core value should seek out a real curriculum run by a professional. As someone famously said, "don't tell me about your values. Show me your budget and I'll tell you about your values."

Review written policies. If your written policies and current handbook do not expressly forbid even the kind of prejudice that makes others, including those like Caitlyn, feel less-than, then change them. You don't need a state mandate; you just need core values.

Talk to the employee. No one will be more attuned to the fact that people are talking about her than she will. So talk to her. Who wants to be an involuntary part of a whispering campaign? Discuss her expectations and yours. You have a company to run. Just because you respect her personal journey doesn't mean that you have to prioritize it over your organization's mission. Job performance matters -- just like it would for anyone else. She is, after all, only entitled to equality. And that means she can be fired, not for who she is but certainly for what she does on the job.

The point is that you don't have to be comfortable with Caitlyn or Alan (formerly Alice) in your breakroom. No person is comfortable with all that is foreign to them. And you don't have to understand.

What you do have to do is lead.