In this highly competitive environment, you need to have the audacity to elevate yourself to leadership roles. Against the fears and uncertainty, you have to step boldly into the role you deserve to be. This episode’s guest, Anton Gunn of 937 Strategy Group, inspires us to be an audacious leader! With insights from his books, The Audacity of Leadership and Just LEAD, he explains what audacious leadership looks like in business and how to achieve it. Anton also taps into boosting retention and building a world-class culture, emphasizing the value of diversity and inclusion. Don’t miss this opportunity to transform your business by becoming an audacious leader. Apply the insights Anton shares in this episode and lead audaciously because that is what you deserve!
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Audacious Leadership: Show Up As A Leader You Deserve To Be With Anton Gunn
This is the show where we talk about how you show up as a leader, communication skills, diversity, and all the things involved in truly being the leader you are designed to be and you want to be. Before I get into my interview with an awesome guest, I’d like to invite you to see how your presentation skills are doing by taking our free four-minute assessment at www.SpeakForResultsQuiz.com. That’s where you can see in four minutes where your presentation skills are strong and where perhaps a little bit of support could get you the results you need and the recognition that you deserve. If you score high enough, you’ll get a free strategy session with me to talk about how you can use this to get the recognition that you deserve.
My guest now, and I am very proud, is the great Anton Gunn. His full bio is extensive, so I’m just going to tell some of the highlights. Anton Gunn is a former Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama and a national expert on workplace injustice. He was the first African American in history elected to the South Carolina Legislature from his district early in his career. Anton is a graduate of the University of South Carolina where he played football for the team there. Also, he earned a Master’s degree in Social Work from USC and was a resident fellow at Harvard.
He is the bestselling author of The Audacity of Leadership, The Presidential Principles, and Just Lead. Anton has been featured in TIME Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, INC Magazine, NPR, Good Morning America, and many others. He was named one of the Ten Most Influential Minority Executives in Healthcare by Fierce Healthcare.
He’s an international keynote speaker and the CEO of 937 Strategy Group. Anton has worked with renowned organizations like Mercedes-Benz, Rock Ventures, Highmark Health, the Boeing Company, and many more. He’s a business management consultant and serves on multiple boards. He has spent his life helping leaders build diverse, high-performing teams, and world-class workplace culture. We had a fascinating conversation. I know you’ll enjoy this. Onto the talk with Anton Gunn.
Anton Gunn, I’ve been waiting to get you on the show for a while. I’m happy to have you. Welcome.
Thank you for having me. I am excited to be here with you.
We have friends in common and you’ve been recommended. I’m excited about this. You have interesting things to say about leadership. Before we get there, I want to ask you about who would be your dream interview. If you could interview on stage someone who’s no longer with us, who would it be, what would you ask them, and who should be listening?
I’m going to go personal with this one. The person I would love to interview would be my great-great-grandfather. His name was John Gunn. He was the first relative in my family who was born free and not a slave in 1866. At the age of 23, John walked away from a sharecropping plantation life. The next thing we see in the census records is that he ended up in Somerset, Pennsylvania working in a steel mill while his family was back in West Virginia, where he would send money back home.
I had some researchers tell me the equivalency of leaving farming life and ending up working in a steel mill would be like leaving, being a practicing attorney, and becoming a physician. My questions from the stage would be, “What was your mindset to have the audacity to just walk away from something that so many formerly enslaved Africans had to continue to do for the rest of their lives and not know anything else? What made you want to leave? What was your belief system? What were the biggest challenges that you faced?”
The audience would be people who want to do something different in their lives but feel hostage held by a job, a career, family, or geography, and want to go do something else, but for whatever reason, don’t have the unmitigated goal to say, “I’m going to change up.” I can’t tell you the number of 50-year-olds that I met who fell into a career because they happened to be smart at something. It wasn’t their passion. It wasn’t what they cared about. They have so much fear about shifting and moving into a whole new career path. That would be the person I love to interview, the audience that would be there, and the questions that I would ask.
I’ll be in the audience. That sounds amazing. Maybe I put you together with another one of my guests who wanted to interview her great-great-grandmother who had been a Norwegian immigrant and owned slaves because that was what you had to do to survive. She had no husband. Her husband died early and she had to keep the farm going. That’s what you did. That would’ve been 100 years earlier in the late 18th century, but that would be an interesting conversation too.
It would be an amazing conversation.
I wanted to ask first because you have these two wonderful books. One’s called The Audacity of Leadership and one is called Just Lead. My reaction in terms of Just Lead is how do we do this? It sounds too easy and simple. Where did those two come together? You started with The Audacity, and then you just went to Just Lead. How do they fit together and has your thinking evolved between those books?
They’re significantly apart. The first one was in 2009 and the most recent one was in 2022. I will tell you where The Audacity of Leadership started and came from. Early in my career, I was put into lots of leadership roles. I became the Chief Executive of a statewide nonprofit organization at the age of 27. A couple of years before that, I had all kinds of successive leadership roles. I chaired boards and committees. I was invited to serve on advisory groups for the governor of South Carolina. I had been put in a lot of leadership positions. A lot of my friends who were in my age cohort, who were many times five levels below any leadership position at work were in frontline roles. They didn’t understand Anton, “How did you just accelerate yourself up to this leadership position in these leadership roles?”
They used to tell me, “Anton, you speak about it a lot, but you should put it down in the book.” That’s when I began to sit down to put pen to paper to write The Audacity of Leadership. That book is about what I call the 10 Essentials to Be a Transformative Leader in the 21st Century. I won’t be able to give you them all, but I will tell you this. There are three things that I use succinctly to elevate myself into leadership roles.
The first thing is that I had to have a belief system that I deserved to lead. So many people don’t believe that they deserve to be in leadership. I was one of these people, unfortunately. I didn’t care how long I had been in a role. I didn’t care if you had more degrees and more experience than I did. I believed that I had something that would be valuable to the organization and that other people connected with. I had the belief system that I deserve to lead, and you have to have the unmitigated belief that you deserve to lead the organization.You must have the unmitigated belief that you deserve to lead the organization. Click To Tweet
How did I get that belief system? It goes back to the second thing that I wrote about in that book. That is the ability to listen and translate what you’re hearing and learning from people. God gave us 2 ears and 1 mouth for a reason. We should have as much talking as we do listening. I learned to listen very early on in my career. I listened to what people said, and I also listened to what they didn’t say. I listened to body language. My ability to lead was that I heard very clearly the pain points people were experiencing in their communities, and what they were experiencing in organizations. That’s the reason why the governor called, is because, “Anton, we know you understand what people are experiencing,” because I’ve listened so well, and I could repeat back to what I was hearing from people.
The second trait is that listening is the cornerstone of being a great leader. The final one is that I know that leadership is not about me, but it’s about building a legacy of leadership or building multiple people who can also lead. The third characteristic that I believe in is always developing the next you. I remember when I first became the Executive Director of a nonprofit organization. In my first six months, I started looking for my replacement. I just got the job. I hadn’t been there for a year, and I didn’t plan to leave for a year. I didn’t plan to leave for 3 or 5 years.
In the first six months, I started looking for the person who I could bring into the organization, develop, train, and allow them to grow alongside me and learn what I was doing so that when it came time for me to go, I could just get out of the way. Leaders stay in places way too long. I have a mindset and a belief system that if you’re in a role, the longest you should stay in that role is seven years. You need to move on to do something else. I will tell you that I’ve worked with more than 400 organizations and leaders at all types of organizations.
I met somebody who’s been there for 10, 12, 15, or 25 years in the same job. If you’ve been in the same job for ten years or more, that means you’re not good at your job. You’re good enough to keep it, but you’re not really good for someone to see you and say, “I want to elevate you into a higher position.” You’ve gotten so comfortable that you’ve figured out how to do it like the back of your hand that you’re not adding new responsibilities, you’re not seeking new challenges, and you’re not growing in real-time.
I would see leaders in the most dysfunctional departments, the ones that were not high performing, because that same leader had been doing the same job for fifteen years, and their position description never changed. It didn’t grow. They didn’t add any new responsibilities. I believe in developing leadership in real-time and then getting out of the way and allowing them to lead. That means you have to have the audacity to seek out a newer and higher leadership role so you create space behind you for other leaders to join in. That’s the cornerstone of The Audacity of Leadership.
I love the idea of the audacity to seek out a new role not just for you but seek out a new role so that there’s space for the next person. I’ve never heard it phrased that way, and I love it. I’m going to be quoting you now because that means it’s a service. It’s servant leadership.
I will tell you this. I always start with my values. I didn’t share them with you. I have four values, and these are the value words that I live by. I sometimes throw in a fifth one, which is fun. I believe in having fun in everything that I do. My very first value is service. The greatest responsibility of a leader is to serve first and lead second. Service is the prerequisite of leadership. The second value is empowerment. It is not good enough to just serve people. It’s your job to empower them by giving them the tools, the information, and the resources for them to determine their own destiny. Empowerment, to me, is the essence of leadership. Why are you leading? You should be leading to put people in a better position and a better place. To do that, you have to equip them.
Also to let go and let them do it their way instead of the way that you think they should do. That was a hard one for me.
It’s hard for a lot of people to let go and to let them find their own space. I believe the greatest ones are the ones that allow people to determine their own destiny and do it their own way. Your job is to empower them. My third value is justice. We know that the world, in general, is inherently unfair. Some of us are born in great places of privilege, and others of us are not. Some of us are given opportunities that others don’t get. Sometimes the hurricane just happens to hit our city every single year while some people never, ever get a hurricane. It’s always unfair and always has.
When unfairness or injustice happens anywhere, a leader’s responsibility is to do something to make it right. You don’t have to solve every problem. You can’t save the entire world. There is something that you can do to make those things that are wrong and unjust a little bit more right than it was when you found it. I believe that a leader’s attribute should be focused on, “What can I do to make this right? What can I do to improve this situation? What can I do to fix what I see is broken? I may not be able to fix all things, but here’s one thing that I can do now to make things better.” That’s been my life story. My entire career has been focused on ridding the world of injustice wherever I see it.
That’s why I got involved in community work. That’s why I ended up working for President Barack Obama because healthcare, the way it was delivered in America, was unfair to 50 million people who had a preexisting condition or maybe worked at a small job or were an entrepreneur and couldn’t get an affordable plan. I said, “We need to do something to make it right.” That’s why I got involved. That’s my third value.
My fourth value is legacy. It goes back to what I was saying about creating space for leaders to come after you. There’s a great quote that sums up my value about legacy. It’s from Myles Munroe. The quote says, “Success without a successor is a failure.” I interpret that to mean if you don’t use your gifts, your talents, your time, and your role as a leader to leave an organization better for the people who come along after you, you might be successful as a leader, but you will never be significant.Success without a successor is a failure. Click To Tweet
The leaders that are the most admired leaders throughout history, millennia, and lifetimes are the leaders who do something that creates a legacy. I want to be that type of leader. I teach, train, and speak about how you become that type of leader in organizations. Those are my four values. I add on the fun, which is I’m a hip-hop kid from Virginia. I love hip-hop music and culture. This is the 50th anniversary of hip-hop in 2023. For me, hip-hop is who I am, and leadership is what I do.
I love that, especially the legacy that goes back to letting go and making space for the next person. I was listening to a commentator talking about the thing that George Washington did by stepping down. He was the first who say, “Let’s transfer power easily instead of having the leader die or be killed.” Up until then with kings, that’s what it all had been.
It’s even deeper than that. If you think about George Washington, my first value of service, he did not want to be president. He never endeavored at all to want to be president. He was a citizen in his life who became General George Washington. He served to create this amazing experiment that we know as the United States of America and he did not want to be president.
They saw him as that quintessential leader, gave him the opportunity to lead, and then he made a decision, “It is time for me to transition out of the way.” It happened to be eight years. We now have the framework in the constitution of two terms for a president. The max that you get is eight years. He served first before he did anything else. Before he led, he served. He also secured his legacy by transitioning power peacefully. It wasn’t about him being a king.
The Audacity of Leadership is a word that speaks to me as a woman. In my previous career as an Opera Director, I was one of the early women in very much a male-dominated industry. Also, the way women are often taught, “Don’t brag. Don’t push yourself forward,” for many years. I like to say we’re socialized that way. I don’t think anybody actually teaches us. You absorb it the way you absorb information. How did you get from that to then Just Lead?
Just Lead is an answer to the questions that I would get all the time. I keynote dozens of conferences every year. I keynote inside large corporations. Whenever I finish a keynote on leadership or workplace culture, I always get pulled to the side after the keynote, usually from a leader who is not the CEO but someone who reports up to somebody in leadership. They start to tell me about the challenges that they’re having internally. They have challenges around diversity and inclusion, challenges around getting respect at the executive table, that they feel like they’ve been passed over for promotions, or they don’t know how to communicate about difficult subjects or challenges they have.
They ask me, “Anton, what can I do when I’m in this situation? I have a boss that doesn’t respect my boundaries and won’t let me have a peaceful vacation without sending me emails and asking me to join Teams meetings.” “I work in an organization that has 10,000 employees. I’m on the executive team, but I feel like I don’t have respect around the table.” “I’ll say something and they’ll skip right over that I said it. Once a man says at the other end of the table, then all of a sudden, ‘That’s a great idea, Bob,’ but they didn’t hear me say the same thing.”
Are you talking about female leaders or leaders of color?
I’ve heard them from both.
I hear it all the time from women. Some of these are gender differences and some of them are if you’re other, they don’t listen to you.
It’s all of the above for me. They say, “What do I do about that?” My response is, “Just lead.” The book Just Lead is 44 actions to break down barriers, boost your retention, and build a world-class culture. What do I mean break down barriers? Sometimes the barrier of why you’re not heard at the board table is because you don’t understand the culture of the board table. You might see the culture, but you don’t understand the culture. Breaking down barriers, for me, is around building intentional one-on-one relationships with the people who are in leadership positions in which you want them to hear your voice.You deserve to be a great leader, and you deserve to work in a world-class culture. My goal is to get you there by helping every step of the way. Click To Tweet
Sometimes it might be speaking up and speaking truth to power, and knowing how to effectively communicate. Sometimes we love to communicate in words, but it’s not always about the words. It’s about the tone of the words. Sometimes, even if it’s not the tone, it’s your body language. I offer some frameworks around how you bring yourself into a space so that you become that leader who is respected and admired for how you show up. Other aspects of it revolve around not just you, but what are you doing for the people that you lead.
I’ve spent 25 years in and around healthcare. As you know, healthcare is a woman-dominated industry. If you look at the average hospital, roughly 60% of the patients are women, and 78% of the employees are likely women inside of a hospital. When you look at the leadership ranks, it is 90% men. To me, it is inherently unfair that you have an organization that’s made up of the majority of women, most of the women are the customers or clients or patients, yet men are always in leadership.
I spent a lot of my time working with nursing leaders on how to develop leadership skills and put themselves in a position to be that executive leader and command that respect around the executive table. Also, on how to lead in real time, particularly when you have lots of other young women who look up to you for leadership. They want to see you as a high-value leader, but it’s hard when you don’t see yourself that way. Just Lead is around what you need to do to keep your best people engaged, and, most importantly, how to command that executive respect at the table. That might mean standing up and fighting for your team, the team that doesn’t have the tools, doesn’t have the resources, and doesn’t get the respect that they deserve.
It’s not about you getting that respect first, but what are you doing to serve your team first to make sure that they get all of what they need to do? If you think about the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., even though he was Black and lived in the segregated South, had lots of privilege. He had multiple education degrees, Morehouse and Boston University, and his Ph.D. He was well respected and had a lot of support and resources, and money was not an issue in his life.
He stepped up and stood up in the Civil Rights Movement for millions of people who didn’t have good jobs, didn’t have good housing, didn’t live in good places, and had his privilege. His leadership elevated when he stopped thinking about, “Me and Coretta and my children are comfortable, but what about all of these people in Montgomery and all of these people in Birmingham and Greensboro?” Sometimes you elevate yourself as a leader, knowing that just lead might mean taking care of the people who don’t have 1/3 of all the assets, benefits, privileges, and rights that you have. That is how I show up every day, and that’s how I encourage leaders to show up.
It makes me think of Martin Luther King, the I Have a Dream speech which started out very wonky. He was using long words and so forth. I always thought he probably did that at some point so that he would be taken seriously. He realized, “These people don’t understand what I’m talking about.” He switched to something that his audience would understand.
I will tell you this. I was with Les Brown. He said to me and a group of people, “Never let what you have to say get in the way of what your audience needs to hear.” It was profound because that’s the example of the I Have a Dream speech. He had something that he wanted to say. It went way over people’s heads. It wasn’t connecting. He changed to say what the audience of everybody there but also everybody watching on TV really needed to hear.
Those are the lines that we remember the most. I want my children to be judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin. Great leaders understand that you got to find the words that work to make sure that you’re delivering the message that needs to be delivered. That’s a big part of the book, Just Lead.
He also used the techniques of preaching which got through. I did a whole episode deconstructing that speech. It was fun. I have so many questions for you. Let’s talk about what’s happening now. We are doing this in the summer of 2023. There are a lot of people who are using diversity, equity, and inclusion as a culture war issue.
I’m always thinking about all those organizations where the C-Suite has said, “We can save some money by cutting the DEI program, and we’re going to fire the DEI director because wouldn’t it be nice to go back to the same old thing?” The employees are pissed off. If you are a manager and somebody high up who’s not connected to the people you’re working with has canceled the DEI department, and this is standing up for your team, how does that enter into the conversation? What can we do?
This is really a big part of the book, Just Lead, so I’m so glad that you asked it. As a manager, you first have to remember that you have to control what you can control. You can’t control the corporate board. You can’t control what the C-Suite does. You don’t have to like it or agree with it, but you have to control what you can control. That is, as a manager, you’re probably involved in the hiring decisions of the people who get to work on your team.
If you value diversity and you know your team values diversity, then you have to control as much part of the process as you can to recruit and select a diverse team that reflects the values that you hope to espouse as a leader and as an organization. Once you have that diverse team, if that team is concerned about what is going forward, then it is incumbent upon you. It is your responsibility as a leader. It’s to raise those concerns to people above you.
Let’s be honest, they may fall on deaf ears, but what you want to do is never want to let your team down and make them feel like you’re not fighting for them or not sharing what’s important to them. You want to encourage your team to continue to give voice to what their concerns are, but you want to take their concerns to the next level. Show them that you’re fighting for them.
The third thing that I would tell leaders to always do, or if you’re in a management role of some sort and you feel like the challenge of diversity is going away, is that it requires you to increase your competency and your skillset on diversity and inclusion. You should not be waiting for the company to tell you that, “We have a great diversity program for you to appreciate and value diversity.” In the same way, you can go to the library and buy a book for your kids to do their homework. You can go to a library and buy a book on how to live out diversity in the workplace and what it means to have a diverse workplace.
You can’t let just your company spoonfeed you. Whatever they think diversity is or is not, you have a great opportunity to develop your own caliber of expertise around what’s going to help you to be a better leader, and here’s why you should do this. I’ve never met a great leader who doesn’t have a competency and a skillset on diversity and inclusion. If you think about our greatest president, and I’m not talking about the one that I worked for, Barack Obama, I’ll say Abraham Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln was a person who valued diversity.You have a great opportunity to develop your caliber of expertise around what will help you be a better leader. Click To Tweet
I’m not just talking about race and gender diversity, but I’m talking about diversity of mindset, perspective, and experience. One of the best leadership books that I’ve ever read was written by an amazing woman, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and the book is called Team of Rivals. It’s about the political genius of Abraham Lincoln, of how he built his cabinet with people who hated him, who were his rivals, and people who didn’t believe he even deserved to be president. When he became president, they talked a lot of crap about him.
Could you imagine working in an environment where you work with people who don’t like you, don’t like your leadership style, don’t like anything that you’re doing, and then you ask them to join your team and be responsible for major portions of your work, and they will determine whether you succeed or whether you fail? It’s a lesson in valuing diversity and the dimensions in which you can to make you strong. If you’re a mid-level manager, that’s your responsibility to figure out, “How can I maintain diversity, develop myself in this space, and be committed to it even though the company may be going in a different direction?”
I’ll end with this point. The companies who are making these decisions to get rid of the chief diversity officers, downsize the diversity program, and go back to the status quo of the 1980s, 1990s, or even early 2000s work culture, those companies will not likely be their industry leaders in the next couple of years. They may not even be in business at all because the research is super clear on this. Organizations that have women on the executive team and the board of directors have a 15% higher profitability than all of their competitors inside the same industry.
When you add ethnic diversity to the mix, you have a 33% higher profitability than all of your competitors in your industry. You’re doing 15% to 30% better than everyone in your industry when you focus on adding diversity at the highest levels. Not in the frontline, in the warehouse, or at the frontline staff levels. I’m talking about in the senior ranks. That’s how we change things in leadership.
I feel like I have more questions for you, but this is something I want to ask. If you are a leader reading this, where’s one place you can start besides buying the books? Give us something where we can start.
This is a great question. I have a free resource that I’m happy to give to all of your leaders, and it is called the Just Lead Toolkit. It’s a simple free toolkit. You can go to AntonGunn.com/Toolkit. Give me an email address and I’ll give you this PDF. The first thing in a PDF you’re going to get is the nine pivotal points that I share in all of my keynote presentations on leadership, culture, bringing your teams back from tough times, and even diversity and inclusion. The second thing I’m going to give you is a free eBook called 10 Qualities of World-Class Leaders.
I’ve done research on some of the greatest leaders, most admired throughout history, from Dr. King to Gandhi, to Mother Theresa, and even Oprah. I’ve distilled down qualities that they all have in common that these are things that you can embody now in your daily walk or in your daily journey. You’re going to get that too. The third thing you’re going to get if you so choose to continue to receive it is that I have a Just Lead application series, which is a simple video series of simple videos that will help you immediately in real time to start to lead better in the workplace for your team.
It talks about mindset, vulnerability, resilience, and giving you all of these small tools. You can read the book, but some people are not readers. I’m giving you this free toolkit, which is going to be chock full of resources that are going to help you in real time to know what you can do to become that leader that everyone admires because you answer the most important things that all employees and people care about. That is how you help them to live out their purposes in the workplace and be in an environment where they’re valued, respected, and included. It is AntonGunn.com/Toolkit, you’ll get the toolkit, and it will come right to you and it will add value to you immediately.
Thank you, Anton, so much. It was wonderful. I’ve had all 50 more questions, but we have to do something else. Thanks so much for having joined us.
If you enjoyed this conversation, please tell your friends and share the link. Subscribe to us on YouTube. Most importantly, leave a review on Apple Podcasts. That’s the one that counts. I’ll see you on the next one.
- Anton Gunn
- The Audacity of Leadership
- The Presidential Principles
- Just Lead
- 937 Strategy Group – LinkedIn
- Team of Rivals
About Anton Gunn
Anton Gunn is a former senior advisor to President Barack Obama and a national expert on Workplace Injustice. He was the first African American in history elected to the South Carolina Legislature from his district early in his career. Anton is a graduate of the University of South Carolina (USC) where he played SEC football for the Gamecocks. He also earned a master’s degree in social work from USC and was a Resident Fellow at Harvard.
He is the bestselling author of The Audacity of Leadership, The Presidential Principles and Just Lead. Anton has been featured in TIME Magazine, the Wall St Journal, INC Magazine, BBC, NPR, and on Good Morning America. Anton was named one of the Ten Most Influential Minority Executives in Healthcare by Fierce Healthcare.
An international keynote speaker and the CEO of 937 Strategy Group, Anton has worked with renowned organizations like Mercedes-Benz Vans, KPMG, Rock Ventures, Highmark Health, Verizon Wireless, Aetna, T-Mobile, Sonepar, Danaher, Emory Healthcare, Blue Shield of California, and The Boeing Company. Anton is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), a designation earned by the top echelon of professional speakers and held by fewer than 10% of the members belonging to the International Federation for Professional Speakers.
As a business management consultant and serving on multiple boards, he has spent his life helping leaders build diverse, high-performing teams, and world-class workplace culture.