We have witnessed during this pandemic how important strong leadership can be. There are a few rare leaders who shine in these times of greatest need, shedding light and showing us the way, whether it be in government, in a hospital ICU, on a church pulpit or in a corporate boardroom.
One visionary leader I wish were still with us during this crisis is Bernard Tyson, the health care trailblazer and former CEO of Kaiser Permanente, who died in November at age 60. If Bernard were here today, I’d welcome the opportunity to talk with him about how we alter course and learn from this tragic and devastating moment in history.
Confronted with the stark realities of the racial disparities in COVID-19 cases and deaths, I picture that Bernard would be analyzing the underlying structural inequities, proposing solutions and taking action.
I say all this from the perspective of my first conversation with Bernard, about five years ago at a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Bernard and I talked intently about race relations in America. We talked about the systemic barriers in place and what needed to change. We talked about racial inequities in the United States, at the top, the middle and the bottom.
That conversation with Bernard plays in my mind as I read stories such as the recent report by ProPublica on the first 100 deaths of coronavirus in Chicago, 70 of whom were Black. Those who died were vulnerable, the investigative piece points out, but their deaths were not inevitable. There were factors that could and should have been addressed.
As a leading expert on health policy, Bernard understood that structural racism, economic exploitation and chronic stress result in “biological weathering” in African Americans. Simply put, blacks experience higher incidence and death rates from chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension. Those factors lead to the vulnerabilities preyed upon by a virus such as COVID-19.
Bernard himself acknowledged that the inequities reach across geographic and economic divides. Six years ago, in the aftermath of the Ferguson decision, he wrote that he was no different, as a Black man, from someone working in retail or food service. Prophetically, these are some of the very people on the front lines of this pandemic.
“You would think my experience as a top executive would be different from a black man who is working in a retail or food service job to support his family. Yet, he and I both understand the commonality of the black male experience that remains consistent no matter what the economic status or job title.”
Indeed, the first Chicago deaths from COVID-19 included people whose lives were strongly connected to their communities: a church deacon, a retired nurse, a former teacher, an Army veteran, a business owner.
Bernard understood that addressing structural inequities requires leadership from the very top offices. As such, he was instrumental in making change at Kaiser Permanente. Under his leadership, the health care giant took steps to connect patients with housing, healthy food and social services. Less than two years ago, Bernard led Kaiser to pledge an investment of $200 million in affordable housing and to combat homelessness in eight states plus the District of Columbia.
Bernard took such actions pre-COVID-19, recognizing how crucial they were. I would urge other corporate leaders across the country to take stock now in their own companies and communities.
In a LinkedIn post several years ago, Bernard shared his unique experience – not as a Fortune 500 CEO, but as a Black man in America. He referenced the conscious and unconscious bias he has personally faced, ending with this sentiment:
“The pursuit of life, liberty and happiness can become a reality for everyone if we eliminate issues standing in the way of improved race relations. I love this country and we’ve made so much progress, but we’re not there yet. With deeper understanding and thoughtful and positive participation, America — and Americans — can live up to our full potential in a country built on diversity of thought, spirit, race and experience.”
Bernard was uniquely positioned to see the whole landscape, from his personal perspective as a Black man to his corporate standing as a global CEO and influential American. Similarly, I am positioned as a Black female executive with a window into corporate C-suites and boardrooms.
What I see is this: Bernard was right. We are not there yet. Inequities at the top have led to inequities at the bottom. Those inequities have resulted amid this pandemic in statistics that cannot be ignored, particularly by the corporate leaders who, like Bernard Tyson did and still do, have the ability to take action.
There is no better time to make strides toward a more equitable nation: From the top, to the middle, to the bottom.