What Is Woke Leadership?

The term “woke” has taken on significant cultural and political meaning over the past several years, influencing society to pay more attention to privilege and work toward social equity. Yet, in the workplace, the term “woke” can be a scary one, especially amongst leaders who might not fully understand what the term means or how it might apply to them and their organization.

Far from being a threat, woke culture can be good for business, especially when business leadership manages to get woke. Here’s a look at what woke leadership is and why it is important for businesses moving forward.

What Woke Leadership Means

While the term “woke” has only gained national attention in recent years, it has its roots much deeper in America’s past. As early as the 1930s, Black singers, writers and activists were using the term as a way of communicating the importance of being aware of the racially motivated dangers lurking in white America. Toward the middle of the 20th century, the term broadened its meaning to being generally politically and socially aware.

At the start of the 21st century, this meaning of woke was mostly limited to African American communities and creatives, but the Black Lives Matter movement of the 2010s shined a spotlight on the term for the rest of the country. Initially, woke meant being conscious of racial tension across the country, but as other social movements gained steam during this time, woke took on new meanings. Today, to be woke is generally to be vigilant of changes to society and to be able to adjust to new ideas, especially if they challenge existing systems.  

Woke leadership brings the concept of wokeness off the street and into business. Some ways to recognize woke leadership include looking for:

  • Leaders who care: Empathy is startlingly absent in upper levels of business management, but it is crucial for building a socially conscious organization. Leaders who truly care about those around them are much more likely to become woke.
  • Leaders who try to understand: It can be challenging to step out of one’s bubble or admit that one’s experience might not lead to an accurate, holistic picture. Leaders who try to find the whole truth are likely to find wokeness easier to obtain.
  • Leaders who refuse who ignore hard truths: It is much easier to turn one’s head or else justify and excuse hard truths about the world than it is to accept and work to change those truths. Leaders who stand up when they see wrong are woke.
  • Leaders who admit their biases: Everyone has blind spots, but not everyone works to identify them. Leaders who recognize that they have unconscious biases and work to unravel those biases will be more adept at integrating wokeness into their business.
  • Leaders who welcome different perspectives: People from different backgrounds have different perspectives on business and society. Leaders who give platforms to people of diverse backgrounds often find it easier to learn those perspectives and utilize them for mutual gain.

Why Woke Leadership Matters

Business leaders should strive to lead based on a set of clear values, as this leadership course explains. Different values provide different benefits to an organization and its people, and woke values are no different. An organization that commits to developing a public image of woke leadership gains specific advantages during this era of social and political upheaval, as more people than ever have expectations for how businesses should operate to advance ideas of wokeness.

First, woke leadership has the potential to attract and retain superior talent amongst its workforce. Research shows that younger workers prioritize positions at companies that care about social justice issues. When employee and leader values align, morale improves and productivity skyrockets.

Next, woke leadership makes an organization favorable amongst consumers, too. More and more often, consumers are voting with their dollars — in other words, they are working to control the behavior of corporations by contributing or withholding financial support. Organizations that display a notable lack of wokeness can suffer extremely negative consequences, like massive boycotts; meanwhile, organizations that have a positive reputation for social activism are thriving.

The term “woke” isn’t as new as it seems, but it is ever more pressing that business leaders understand the movement and alter their behavior. Organizations with truly woke leadership — not merely leaders who use the term without recognizing its importance or changing their mindset — stand to benefit in the coming years as workers and customers place greater emphasis on how leaders and their businesses act.