“Leading with Dignity” with Harvard’s Dr. Donna Hicks in the USA


We may be different and unequal in positions of power, but we are all equal in dignity. Dignity consciousness, or what international expert on conflict resolution Dr. Donna Hicks calls “Mandela Consciousness,” ensures that nobody can take away your dignity. Dignity is your inherent value or worth; it is different to respect. You’re born with it. At the heart of every conflict and injustice in the world is an assault on human dignity. As leaders, how do we ensure that the way we lead upholds the dignity of the people we lead? Join this powerful conversation between Dr. Hicks and Anne Pratt as they unravel the threads of this unspoken human conversation. This may be the key to resolving worldwide conflicts and creating a culture that brings out the best in people.

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“Leading with Dignity” with Harvard’s Dr. Donna Hicks in the USA

The Unspoken Human Conversation to Build a Better Culture and Heal the Deep Divides

Thank you for joining us from around the world. I’m formerly from South Africa and relocated abroad to attend a Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellowship in beautiful Boston in the United States of America. Our future bold leader joins us from Harvard across the Charles River from Boston in the United States of America. She is Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs Associate and is the Deputy Director of the International Conflict Analysis and Resolution Program.

She is an author, a BBC consultant, an international conflict resolution expert, and a peacemaker. She worked with South Africa’s late and great Archbishop Desmond Tutu on a BBC series on conflict resolution in Northern Ireland. Her international work takes her to countries like Northern Ireland, Northern South America, Cuba, Palestine, Israel, Libya, Colombia, Sri Lanka, and many more.

Stay tuned in as she shares with us what dignity is versus respect, why dignity is the unspoken human conversation to resolve conflicts, and how leading with dignity can resolve conflicts, both big and small, systemic and personalized indignities, and help create a culture to bring out the best in all people. We warmly welcome my dear friend, my bookend, Dr. Donna Hicks. Welcome to the show.


LBF 39 | Leading With Dignity


Donna, it’s wonderful to see you again. Thank you for being part of this amazing conversation on dignity.

It is my pleasure, Anne. Thank you.

You’ve written two books. I was curious about one, Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, and second, Leading with Dignity: How to Create a Culture That Brings Out the Best in People. Those are two very valuable books. What attracted you to this area of dignity? Why do you think it’s so important in the world of work and life?

Dignity, I realized in retrospect, was following me around all my life. I wasn’t aware of it until I started my professional career as an international conflict resolution professional. I had the privilege of sitting down with parties in conflict, trying to help them have dialogues about the issues that divided them. I worked in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, North America, and South America. Wherever there was an intractable international conflict, my organization at Harvard called the Program on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution, and we were often asked to go in and help the parties have a discussion instead of killing each other.

I did that for probably a decade before I realized I thought we were having the wrong conversation to start these dialogues. The conversation that we were having had to do with the political issues that were dividing the parties. In the Middle East, we have to talk about a two-state solution, refugees, settlements, and all of that. It didn’t matter where we were.

It was happening in the Middle East, but it was also happening in Sri Lanka, Colombia, Northern Ireland, and all these other places, as well as Libya. I realized another conversation was taking place at these tables, but it had no words. It was a silent conversation except for the fact that I had, being a psychologist, listened to what wasn’t being said at the table. I realized that such an emotional turmoil was going on within the parties.

I always thought about this second conversation as happening under the table. Every time one of them would blow up and have a big reaction, I thought, “We’ve got to be able to talk about that. What was that? What happened there?” For a while, I thought, “These are emotional reactions.” They were emotional. When I would ask the parties, “Can we discuss that emotional outburst?” they would say, “We’re not emotional. We’re responding to injustice.” I said, “I can’t use the word emotions.”

I thought, “I’m going to start thinking about trauma. These emotional responses are about being traumatized for so long and nobody paying attention to that trauma.” The next time, I tried using the word trauma. I said, “I can see that you’re having a traumatic response here, and it’s understandable.” They would say to me, “This is not about trauma. This is about injustice.” I realized all those words weren’t working. (Editor’s note: Our words matter. What words create the magic? )

One day, I was in Sri Lanka doing one of these similar dialogues. Something hit me like a rocket. I said, “If I were to put words to this unspoken conversation, it would have something to do with saying, “How dare you treat us this way? Don’t you see we’re human beings? Can’t you see we’re suffering, and you’re doing nothing about it?” I thought, “This is about their dignity.” The moment I realized that, I said, “I’m going to try it out the next time I convene a dialogue.”

It happened to be in Latin America. I was presented to this group of conflicting parties in Latin America. I was supposed to be doing a classic mediation. I said, “I’ve been struggling here with what is the human dimension to these conflicts that never get discussed. I’ve been all over the world trying to help parties have these conversations. I can tell you I believe that so much of what isn’t being said has to do with your dignity.”

So much of what isn't being said has to do with your dignity. Click To Tweet

I said, “Would you be willing to have a conversation about the ways in which you feel your dignity has been assaulted by this conflict?” That was the magic. That word had magic. They said, “That’s exactly right. That’s exactly what’s happening here. Our dignity is not being recognized.” It was one of those things that once I saw it and recognized that it was an underlying human response to being treated as if you didn’t matter. That’s how it happened.

To that point, that’s a wonderful segway into how you define it. Having read your amazing books, you talk about people’s inherent worth. If you had to give us your precise definition, how would you define dignity?

This definition also came with a lot of help from the beloved Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Having worked in so many different places and people all over the world with the same response to assaults on dignity, I realized it’s a highly emotional event. I didn’t want to get all fancy Harvard analytical about this because I had to be crystal clear about what I think about dignity. It is simply this. ‘Dignity is our inherent inborn value and worth.‘ On top of that, it is ‘our inborn vulnerability to having that dignity assaulted.’ It is so simple. Everybody can understand that definition, including little kids. We’re teaching this in schools. That was it.

I pointed out that Archbishop Tutu helped me with this because he was crystal clear that this dignity that we’re born with never leaves us. Nobody can take it away from us. It can be assaulted, traumatized, and injured, but at the end of the day, it is always there with us. If we let it go or decide we think we have our dignity stolen from us or stripped from us, then we’ve got problems.

Tutu told me, “You have to impart with every single group you talk to. You must remind them they have dignity, and nobody can take it away from them. It can be injured, and you need to heal from that.” He asked me, “How do you think we got through apartheid in South Africa? How do you think we got through this?” It makes me want to weep. He said, “We knew that our dignity was in our hands and our hands only.”

He talked about Mandela. He said, “Mandela understood this profoundly.” I even call this awareness of our dignity Mandela Consciousness. He spread this notion along with Archbishop Desmond Tutu that nobody is going to take our dignity from us. “We’re never going to give it up,” Mandela says, “Not for any man or any institution. It is in our hands and our hands only.” As simple as all that is, I can tell you that most of the people with whom I work around the world or anywhere haven’t yet claimed their dignity. They don’t even know it’s there.

Many people around the world haven’t yet claimed their dignity. They don’t even know it’s there. Click To Tweet

That leads me to two more questions. Having lived through that era of apartheid and having felt the assault on dignity in so many traumatic ways and places, what would you define as the distinction between dignity and respect, which, often, people seem to confuse? I know that you’ve shared that dignity is inherent. It cannot be taken away, and respect has to be earned. Why do you think people confuse these two? How is it easy for people to differentiate between the two?

People confuse it because they don’t understand it. Dignity is something that is with us until we leave this planet. Who knows in the afterlife if we certainly will have it as well? Oftentimes, my parties in the conflicts that I was working with would say that one of the reasons why we are fighting is to restore that dignity. They would say, “We demand respect.” I would say to them, “You can’t demand respect. You can demand to be treated like the human being you are. You can demand to be treated with dignity because every single one of us has it.”

I would tell them, “If we separate this issue of dignity and respect, respect must be earned. That’s way down the road if it ever comes.” I said, “Dignity is something we can work with. We could help educate each other about dignity. We can talk about it. We can heal from it together. You’re never going to get somebody who’s been in conflict for 100 years or treated as if they’re less than human to respect the people. That’s a bit of what I call a bridge too far. We can get people to treat each other with dignity no matter how bad the relationship was.”

It’s an important distinction. You made a point that dignity’s been following you around for a long time. I was wondering. Could you take us back in time to a defining moment in your young life, a specific event, or an incident where you felt that your dignity was being challenged? It could be an event that defined your path in terms of where you are in your work. Is there a defining moment that shaped this work?

It happened more over time. I grew up in a family that was conflicted. My father, his ancestry, came over here on the Mayflower. My mother, on the other hand, was a first-generation Polish immigrant. They fell in love in high school and got married. That’s about as far as the joy lasted because once they started having kids (there are five of us in my family), the conflict that came up between my traditional Yankee father’s family, which was proper and all of that, and my mother’s Polish farmer family because they had a beautiful farm and were wonderful, they mixed like oil and water. There was so much conflict all of the time.

As a little kid, I remember thinking, “Is there something not right here,” especially when my father would call my mother a stupid polack and stuff like that. Here’s my poor mother, and I’m thinking, “We can do better than this.” I remember in kindergarten going into school thinking, “I got to get out of this. This is not right that my parents are treating each other and us like this.” We were also not treated very well. When I say it followed me around all my life, yet, at the same time, I also knew that I was going to dedicate my life to this. I grew up in a tiny town with 2,500 people. I was the first one to go to college.

Where was this?

It’s in Upstate New York. It was a little town called Stephentown. I had this internal message. I don’t know what else to call it. Religious people might say it was God’s voice or something. I had this internal drive that I had to get out there. I knew even in high school that I had to do international work. If you could see the environment from which I came, they used to call me hicks from the sticks, but I was driven. I kept following my path. One door would lead to another, and then I’d open that door and move there. Finally, I got my Ph.D. and started working. I got a fellowship at Harvard with Professor Herbert Kelman, who is my beloved mentor who passed. Those doors opened.

I already told you the end of the story where the word dignity came to me. I realized why I have such a fierce determination around it. It was because I lived it from a very young age. I not only lived in indignity, but I witnessed it daily. As a kid, I felt it. I didn’t know what the word was in my head yet, but it changed me. In some ways, all that abuse was a blessing because I did something about it. I transformed it. It was alchemy. I transformed all of those bad experiences into where I am, those two books that you are talking about.

You talked about kindergarten. Is there a particular moment in time when you walked into kindergarten or some event that happened? There was a litany of events, but is there a particular moment? Can you describe that experience, how you felt at the time, and what happened?

I had a wonderful teacher. I can tell you that that teacher saw me. She saw my preciousness. She probably even saw my wounds. I’m sure she did. I was a shy little girl. It’s hard to imagine that because I’m all over the place. That teacher showed me dignity. She showed me that I was special and I was smart. She did this for all the students. It wasn’t just me. Believe me. I wasn’t singled out.

That was my first foray into another reality. The school was a whole other reality for me because we spent all our days there. That beautiful, wonderful teacher, her name was Mrs. Lips, permitted me to flourish. I became this smart little girl. In every class and grade that I went to after that, I had the same experience with my teachers. I have never had a bad experience—shout-out to all the teachers in the world. You can make such a huge difference in a child’s life. That’s one of the reasons why I teach.

Let’s fast forward a little to your amazing international work. You’ve worked in the Middle East with Palestine, Israel, and Northern Ireland. You’ve done a lot of work there in Sri Lanka, Colombia, and Libya. Can you take us back to one particular event where dignity played a significant role, the lack of expression of one’s dignity or an assault on somebody’s dignity? Can you cite a particular example for us or a pretty heated event? What was the light bulb moment?

There are so many, but one that I wrote about in one of the books was we were having a dialogue. I don’t want to say what the conflict was, but the parties came to Harvard. One of the participants on one side of the conflict was trying to explain what life was like for them in his community.

What countries? Can we contextualize?

It was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of the Palestinians was trying to explain everyday life, especially going through the checkpoints and being so humiliated. This is common knowledge. Everybody knows about this. He was almost in tears in his description. I was sitting at the other end of the table with my co-facilitator, a guy sitting next to me. There were always three of us facilitating. One of the Israelis ignored what this guy had said and started on another topic entirely.

I could see this Palestinian guy. He pushed back from the table, sat there for about 30 seconds, and then got up and left. I said to my co-facilitator, “So-and-so left. I’ve got to go see what happened.” He said, “He’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” I said, “I don’t think he’s fine.” I waited a minute and got up. Facilitators rarely leave the table. You’re not supposed to. That’s not part of what we do, which is to leave the table. I felt like I had to go after him. I had to see if he was okay because he was so visibly not okay to me. I went out, and he was sitting on this little couch a few feet from the door. He was in tears. I said, “Are you okay?” He said, “No, I’m not. I’m not okay. I can’t do this.”

I said, “I want you to know that I heard what you said. I heard how difficult life was for you, not only just for you but for your community. I want to say how sorry I am.” That’s all I did. I acknowledged him in that way. I said, “I wished it hadn’t happened and we could have continued that conversation.” He straightened up after I said that. It was like he needed somebody to say to him, “I see you. I can hear what you’re saying. I understand that what happened is so painful daily. I’m hearing that from you.” He said, “I got to get back in there.” I said, “Let’s go.”

He needed that acknowledgment or recognition. This leads me to the next question. In your work on Leading with Dignity, you talk about the dignity model and the ten elements of dignity. Can you share those ten ingredients with us and perhaps a brief view of why that element is critical?

What I did was once I recognized the importance of dignity, I realized that this was the missing link in my understanding of conflict, but at the same time, I had no idea what it looked like on a day-to-day basis. What would it look like if you had your dignity honored or your dignity violated? Give me the scenario.

I decided that I wanted to interview people. I interviewed people and asked them, “Tell me about a time when you felt your dignity was violated or a time when you felt your dignity was honored.” I gave them a choice. Incidentally, most people talked about the way their dignity had been violated. They had very few stories about the way it was honored.

Can you share the sample or the kinds of people you were talking about?

It wall over the world. I have students from all over the world too, so getting a diverse sample was easy. What struck me was that no matter where I was in the world asking these questions to the people, they had a very similar story. The context might have been different because of the cultural influences. And so on, but when it came down to the emotional reaction that people were having, I came up with ten specific ways in which people felt that they wanted their dignity honored.

The first one had to do with identity. People want their identity accepted no matter who they are. No matter their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or physical capability. People want to be thought of as equal in dignity. I always say, “This is important because we may differ in status, but at the end of the day, we are all equal in dignity.” That’s what people want in terms of having their identity accepted. They want recognition for their unique qualities and ways of life.

There is a way this also influences the workplace. For example, people want to be recognized for a job well done. They want a thank you or to be given a pat on the back. People want to be included and feel like they belong. If you’re in a situation or a conflict and people are being marginalized and displaced, one of the fundamental desires is to have a creative sense of belonging for everyone and all people. People want acknowledgment for the suffering that they’ve endured.

Tutu helped me with this one as well. He told me, “When people have been roughed up, they need acknowledgment for what they’ve been through.” I learned that in the story I told you about the Palestinian I acknowledged. That’s an example of acknowledgment. They also want fairness. People want to be treated fairly, be given the benefit of the doubt, and have a sense of safety where they are. It’s not just physical safety. That’s critically important, but people also want to feel psychologically safe that they can be who they are, their authentic selves, no matter what environment they’re in.

They also want accountability. People want an apology when something bad happens to them. We want to hear, “I’m sorry for doing that.” What’s critical about an apology is it’s not just, “I’m sorry I did that to you,” but, “I’m sorry, and I will work hard at not ever doing that again.” That second piece usually gets sidelined, but that’s the important aspect of accountability.

Also, an apology without conditions.

I was thinking about apologizing and deciding I needed to develop an exercise to help people do that and figure out how to do it well. I have one for acknowledgment and many other things. The last one is understanding. People want to be understood. It’s so painful for people when somebody rushes to judgment about who they are based on some stereotype. People want to be able to have time to talk about what their life experience is. To seek deeper understanding is one of the most powerful ways of demonstrating that you see the dignity and worth in other people.


LBF 39 | Leading With Dignity


That raises such an interesting question in my mind. We think about the world, not only the corporate world because life is fast. The world happens quickly. Things move dynamically and quickly. In the model of top-down command control, the typical hierarchical systems we see in organizations and this notion, “I’m more senior to you. Therefore, I’m superior to you,” how do you define the distinction for executives who say, “I maybe am unconsciously not being respectful of people’s dignity.” How do you guide those people in defining the distinction between you may appear to be on a more senior level, you are paid more by the organization, you have a title that wields more power, and yet, you’re equal in dignity? How do you help those people understand that distinction?

First of all, that question is one of the reasons why I wrote that second book, Leading with Dignity: How to Create a Culture That Brings Out the Best in People. After my first book was published, I was asked to go into the corporate world. I realized that some of these same human factors that were taking place in the workplace were very similar to the issues that were dividing parties and these big conflicts. It’s a focus on that human dimension of the dignity of people.

LBF 39 | Leading With Dignity
Leading with Dignity: How to Create a Culture That Brings Out the Best in People

I remember my first foray was in this massive organization, this big corporation. The leadership team was wonderful people, but they were so ignorant of issues related to dignity. They felt like, “I’ve achieved this power and authority here. I’m superior. I make the decisions. I do this and that.” That’s what they were taught in business school. It was the command and control methodology way of leading people.

I saw it over and over again. It wasn’t just in that big corporation. It was in other smaller organizations as well. I thought, “The ignorance surrounding this issue of dignity is so huge that it’s having such an impact on people, and we’re not even conscious of it.” I thought, “How do I introduce this to a team of executives? How do I do this?”

I realized that the one thing that I felt I was necessary for was to try to take the shame out of it. I wasn’t there to tell them, “You’re screwing up here. You’re not leading your people well. They don’t like you. It’s a toxic work environment,” which was all these words that I was hearing from the employees. I would say to them, “I had to study dignity. I spent ten years of my professional career studying dignity to get to the core of it. If you’ve never been exposed to that, you’re not going to know.” I say, “Good people with good intentions violate dignity because of ignorance.”

That takes the sting out of it by saying, “You were never exposed. When did you learn about dignity in school? Did you ever take a course in business school called Dignity 101? You never did. Now, it is.” That’s another great story. This is the whole point. The only way we can get people to hold up the mirror and look at the impact of their actions on other people is if we don’t shame them. It’s a nice way out, and it’s the truth. The truth is we’re not exposed to this. That is the reason why I decided I had to write that second book about leadership.

The only way we can get people to hold up the mirror and look at the impact of their actions on other people is if we don't shame them. Click To Tweet

If the leaders are conscious of dignity or embody ‘dignity consciousness’ or what I call’ Mandela Consciousness,’ the people are going to watch. People watch the leadership. They see everything that they’re doing. If the employees see that their leaders are taking responsibility for the mistakes they make or saying, “I messed up. I’m sorry,” then they’re going to feel free and safe to do the same thing. The only way to do this is to be able to get people to open their eyes to the impact of their behavior on others. If you use shame, those doors close fast.



The follow-up question for me is for the diehards. They are the people who say, “I am superior. I have more weight in this organization. I do have more impact.” What do you say to them?

I say, “You may differ in status, but you’re equal in dignity.” That’s my simple response. I’d be like, “You have more power. You have authority. You have status and decision-making powers that the people under you don’t have, but it doesn’t permit you to treat them as anything less than a human being like you who is born with dignity.”

In my definition of accepting identity, I say, “Keep in mind that you’re neither inferior nor superior to others.” That’s part of the learning. That’s all I can say. It takes a while for some of the diehards to let go of that because it’s such a traditional business paradigm that you are the one that has all the power and influence. That’s the hardest one to let go of on the part of traditionalists or people who believe in this old command and control leadership style.

You were referencing the wonderful Archbishop Desmond Tutu. You’ve worked with him. You were an advisor to the BBC. You worked on a program looking at perpetrators and victims of the conflict in Northern Ireland. The BBC created three television shows called ‘Facing the Truth.’ Can you take us back to a particular moment perhaps in that conflict in working with perpetrators and victims, where perpetrators did have this feeling of superiority? Was there a particular moment where there was a light bulb moment that they suddenly got it like, “I’m not superior,” and that, in fact, we are equal in dignity? Is there a particular example that you and The Arch worked on that you could share with us?

I love how you called him The Arch because he insisted that we call him The Arch. There’s one I wrote about in the first book where I walked through what happened, one of the transformative moments that took place in these dialogues. One of the things we wanted to be sure to do was to give both parties, the victim and the perpetrator, an equal opportunity to tell their story and why they decided to do what they did.

In this one episode, we had a British police officer and an IRA volunteer, and the IRA guy almost killed the British police officer. They were brought together to see if there could be any hope for reconciliation. That was the whole purpose of the program. The emotional parts of the conflict were still alive in Belfast. We would try to figure out how to get to that core and maybe achieve reconciliation.

(Editor’s note: The Northern Ireland conflict from about 1968 to 1998, was a violent sectarian conflict between the Protestant unionists (loyalists), who wished to remain part of the United Kingdom, and the Roman Catholic nationalists (republicans), who wanted Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland. Other major players in the conflict included the British army, Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), and Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR; from 1992, called the Royal Irish Regiment). The collective goal was to play a peacekeeping role, most prominently between the nationalist Irish Republican Army (IRA), which viewed the conflict as a guerrilla war for national independence, and the Roman Catholic unionist paramilitary forces, which characterized the IRA’s aggression as terrorism.  The conflict was marked by street fighting, sensational bombings, sniper attacks, roadblocks, and internment without trial, essentially a civil war. An estimated 3,600 people were killed, and more than 30,000 more were severely wounded before a peaceful solution came about. This 1998 settlement involved the United Kingdom and Ireland governments, leading to a power-sharing arrangement in the Northern Ireland Assembly at StormontWhile Ireland was fully independent, Northern Ireland remained under British rule. The Catholic communities in cities like Belfast and Derry (legally called Londonderry) complained of discrimination and unfair treatment by the Protestant-controlled government and police forces. Source: An article written by act-checked by Last Updated:  

One of the things we did was we let them talk. We probably sat there for 6 or 8 hours with each couple, but then it was edited down to a 45-minute program. One of the defining moments was after the IRA volunteer and his name was Ronnie, told his story about what life was like growing up in Northern Ireland as an Irish Catholic, what that was like, what he went through, and the kind of humiliation he experienced in terms of union feeling more superior to the Irish Catholics.

Malcolm, who was the British police officer, listened and asked a few questions. I’m leaving out a whole lot for the sake of time. At one point, Malcolm said to Ronnie, “I’m sitting here listening to you tell your story about what your life was like and how you had somebody shot next to you. I have a feeling that if I had grown up under those same circumstances and had your experiences, I probably would’ve done the same thing.” In this talk about acknowledgment, Ronnie was blown away. He did not expect Malcolm, the so-called superior part in the superior-inferior dynamic there, to say, “I probably would’ve done the same thing.”

You could even see it. People can watch it. You can go on YouTube and watch this episode. It’s like Ronnie let go of something at that moment. Something shifted. Malcolm, for that matter too. It was both a letting go and a release of an old conflict narrative about who the people were. It was a beautiful moment to highlight how beautiful it was. These two people, with their families, went out to dinner after we finished all the filming and everything. They went on the road for a while, talking about reconciliation.

Did they get together?

They did for a while. It was one of those moments for both men that something happened inside. There was a dramatic shift.

Working with The Arch, what did you learn from Archbishop Desmond Tutu? He headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa as South Africa worked through its post-apartheid era and the Government of National Unity came into being. What stood out most significantly for you? I know there were such special times for you.

There was so much. When people are in a leadership position, everybody watches them. They set the tone and all of this. I spent two weeks watching him and observing how he treated people and some of the perpetrators. I remember going to him one day and saying, “I’m worried that I’m not going to be able to open my heart.” We had a perpetrator who was vicious in the way he killed people. I thought, “I don’t know if I can extend empathy.” I said, “What should I do?”

Can you give us examples of what The Arch did? Can you give us specific tangibles about what he did in that situation?

He would stay laser-focused and listen to every single word that person was saying. In a minute, you’ll see what he was doing by what he told me to do. I said, “How do you do this? How do you stay focused?” He had these loving looks. This was a man who taught me about love more than anything else. He taught me about the absence of love, what it can do to a human being, and what we can justify within ourselves if we are not feeling loved. A lot of unloved people are dignity violators. He would look at them and would have these penetrating empathic looks. He would lean in and say, “Tell me more. What was that like for you?”

In preparation for one of these filmings, I said, “I don’t know if I can do it. Help me. When I can’t get through to his dignity, what should I do?” Do you know what he said to me? It was, “If you can’t get to it, keep digging because you’ll find it. It will be in there.” That sounds so simple and funny. That’s what he would do. He would always use humor to make points when we were debriefing or something like that. That was one huge one right there. If you can’t genuinely feel that person’s dignity, keep on digging for it.

The other story is we were finished with the very first day of filming. We were sitting there for eight hours. It was exhausting. All of us were ready to go out for a walk or something. As we were leaving the room, the BBC producer said, “Why don’t we all sit a while and do a debrief of the day to see what we could do better, what we did great,” and so on. As a good conflict resolution facilitator, I realized, “We need to debrief.” Everybody says, “Yeah.”

Bringing up the end of the line as we were walking out is The Arch. He’s silent about this. We get outside into the hallway. He turns to us and says, “We are not doing a debrief.” We all stood there stunned. We were like, “Why?” As he walks up the stairway to go to his room, he says this to us. He said, because we were in a private house, “There’s enough energy in this house to last us for the entire time we’re together, and we’re only on day one.”

He said, “We are not going to talk about anything anymore. We’ve had it with this. You all should go out and take a walk. Do something.” He said, “At 7:00, we’re all coming downstairs into the living room. We’re going to play music, sing and dance. We’re going to have a party every day after these encounters. Are you all willing to do that?” We said, “Sure.” He said, “We’ve got to put positive energy to counteract all that negative energy.” We’re standing there stunned. We’re like, “We can do that.” He’s walking up the stairs. He turns around, looks at us, and says, “You must remember one thing. It’s our duty to be joyful.

He wrote that with the Dalai Lama. He wrote The Book of Joy.

He is playful all the time. He feels that he took in too much of that pain since he did all those truth and reconciliation encounters in South Africa for so long. That was why he wanted us to counterbalance all that pain because we were all feeling it. Believe me. We were suffering there. It’s our duty to be joyful.

As you and I have shared and spoken about, we are bookends. You had this wonderful connection with The Arch, and I had the incredible privilege of meeting Nelson Mandela. This moves me to the next question. What stands out as the most significant Mandela Moment for you? You’ve written about Mandela in your book. Is there a particular event that stands out that hugely inspires you, shapes you, and continues to inspire the work you do?

It is similar to Mandela. He or one of his colleagues was being treated badly. For a moment, he looked into the eyes of the perpetrator. He could see their dignity. He saw something that made him realize that this is a human being, too, who’s perpetrating these indignities on us. I thought that it was incredibly evolved to be able to see that. He said it was a flash sometimes. That was from the book.

From watching him and observing him as a politician and how he was able to forgive the people who treated him so badly, especially in Robben Island when he came out smiling. I have a slide of him coming out of the prison. He’s got this big beautiful smile on his face. I thought, “This is what Tutu means that it’s our duty to be joyful.”



To go back to a particular moment, you also referenced in your book the day he arrived at Robben Island. I’d love you to share that. For me, that touched me in a very profound way. From what I’ve read in your book, it seemed to be a significant moment for you too. Could you share with us and our audience what is the significance of that moment, his first day on Robben Island?

Desmond Tutu told me, “You go and read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography,” when we talked about dignity. We had many conversations about dignity in those days, the two entire weeks we were together there. When I got back home, I read the book. The passage that stood out to me was when he was describing what it was like going into Robben Island for the first time and what he was experiencing. What he described was that the guards were all trying to strip them of their dignity. They were treating them like dogs or animals. He said, “I knew I had to figure out what the guards were up to.”

It didn’t take him twenty minutes, maybe, not even, to figure out what the guards were up to and how they were going to treat them. He said, “This is interesting. I feel okay about this because what they’re trying to do is strip us of our dignity.” It’s a wonderful passage in the book. He said, “Nobody is going to take my dignity away from me. It’s in my hands. Our dignity is in our hands and our hands only. No man or institution is going to touch that unless we let it go.” He said, “It’s mine. Nobody’s going to touch my dignity.” That was a big learning moment.

It was what The Arch was trying to instill in me too. There was a time before that when I thought that people did have the power to strip us of our dignity. Tutu and Mandela both made this distinction between having an insult to your dignity and being treated badly does not mean you lose your dignity. It means you’ve had your dignity injured and need to heal from that. The other part of the learning there was we can’t ignore those dignity violations and insults. We have to take care of them. That led to a whole other dimension of what healing looks like from these indignities.

What I found significant about that story, too. Mandela established that precedent on day one. Before we turn to some of the bigger leadership issues, can you share with us about healing? What (for you)  are the key steps people can follow to heal?

As The Arch pointed out, it’s important to get acknowledgment for the suffering that we’ve endured from these violations.

What if people aren’t willing to acknowledge it?

It doesn’t have to be the person who did the perpetrator. It could be you and me. Let’s say we meet with a group of people, you and I, who have been suffering terribly. Our first job is to acknowledge. It’s what I did with the Palestinian when he got up and walked out. I wasn’t the one who made him get up and walk out, but I had the power to help him believe that somebody is seeing and hearing him and telling him, “What happened was wrong. You should not have been treated that way.” That’s one of the first steps. This is what The Arch said, “People need to hear from somebody, and it doesn’t even have to be the person who did it, that what happened to you was wrong to let go.

The other thing is critically important that I have found. It is to not keep those dignity insults inside you. Humans tend not to talk about times when we’ve been so humiliated because it feels very embarrassing to talk about it with others. It is opening the door and letting out that story about what happened to you to whomever. I talk about making sure that you have a ‘dignity buddy.’ That is somebody that you can turn to. That is somebody you trust and feel safe with that you can turn to and talk about that.

There is research by one of my colleagues at Columbia University. The work shows that when you can externalize an event, something that happens to you like a dignity violation if you can talk about it and get it outside of you, it’s the pathway to healing. We’re keeping it inside to fester. We ruminate over these things. Getting it out there and externalizing it gives it a sense of validation that what happened to you was wrong. Never ever keep it silent. You got to find somebody.



Professionals are important, like professional trauma healers, such as psychiatrists, psychologists, and trained people. Every day people like you and me can do this too. We can help people by acknowledging them, letting them tell their stories, and making it feel safe for them to talk about something horrific. We can all play a part in that healing process, but we must do it together. You can’t do it alone. It’s too hard.

Coming back to leadership, what do you believe are the biggest leadership changes we face, not only in the United States, because we are living through very turbulent times but also in the world? You’ve worked around the world. For you, what are the big things that keep you quite concerned?

When I talk about leadership, I talk about the need to understand dignity at two levels. One is as a leader, you need to be able to interpersonally interact with people in a way that doesn’t violate their dignity. You need to be able to honor their dignity. There’s another level, which is the more destructive level in some ways. That is the structural indignities that we are seeing all over the world, whether it’s racism here in this country that we’re grappling with, structural, systemic ways in which we devalue some people and increase the value in others, that superiority dynamic that you were pointing out.

As a leader, you need to be able to interpersonally interact with people in a way that doesn't violate their dignity. Click To Tweet

There are those bigger structural issues that we have to work on. Racism is one, but it’s not the only ‘ism.’ Women are still being treated as less than men. When you talk about Europe, looking at Ukraine and Russia, there’s no dignity. The absence of dignity there is astonishing. How do we get a leadership that can navigate that level? Those external sources of indignities are almost beyond any one human being’s control. Those are the ones.

What we have to do as a community, whether it’s the Western world or whatever community, is whatever we can do to garner support for one another. This isn’t something that Ukraine can do alone and counteract those forces. We have to work together, which is what the West is doing. I feel confident that once we can get the violence to stop because the first order of business in these systemic issues is getting the violence to stop, then maybe we could go in at some point down the road and talk about dignity.

Let’s say we have a new administration in Russia with people who are very dignity-conscious. There are a lot of dignity-conscious citizens in Russia. I know them. How can we elevate dignity once the violence stops and make it so clear and show the world that humanity should be our first order of business and working out the politics is the second? It’s a fantasy. It probably never happened in our lifetime. I’m not sure.

As our good friend Nelson Mandela always said, “It always seems impossible until it is done,” so never give up the dream.

It’s true. That’s what Winston Churchill said, “Never give up.” I do want to make that distinction between those systemic forces and the interpersonal forces. It’s like apartheid in South Africa. You couldn’t have people learn how to treat each other with dignity without the systemic changes that were necessary, which is getting rid of that superiority, inferiority, and division.

Turning to what The Arch left you with in terms of our duty to be joyful, I’d love you to share three fun facts about you. Where is your favorite place to holiday and why?

I think about Sri Lanka or Cambodia, where I spent a summer and had the most extraordinary experiences there. At this point in my life, my husband and I have a summer home in Maine. If we want to get rather mundane here, we go up there and have the most joyful time. We spent the pandemic up in Maine (in the USA). It’s a very rural area. We’re right on the water. We had the advantage of being out in nature the whole time during the pandemic, whereas here in where we are in Boston, the houses are right up next to each other. We were afraid to go into the supermarket. We didn’t want to go out.

Up there, we had such a wonderful time learning about birds. We learned about all of the trees that surrounded us. We took the time to reconnect with nature. It sounds silly, but I feel so much more a part of my natural world because I have paid homage to it. I was so grateful to have that beautiful environment when everybody was suffering so much here in these big cities. I’ll leave Maine up there as one of my favorite places.

Maine is up in the Northeast. What joyful moment stands out about your childhood?

My grandparents. Honestly, I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my grandparents. I had a Dutch grandmother. My grandfather was of British descent. In my biological first family, it was harsh and conflict-ridden. They focused on us as children. We had our toys and bedroom. My grandparents taught me about joy. They took us on holiday and did all the things.

Was it maternal or paternal grandparents?

My paternal.

What is one thing people don’t know about you?

People in my world don’t know my family’s story of origin and what rooted my passion for dignity. I started by telling you it’s been following me around all my life. They see this successful Harvard person doing all this wonderful stuff all over the world. Most people, which all your readers and audience will know, don’t know that it came from much suffering. My wisdom and insight about dignity came from a deep place of suffering as a child.

What remarkable work you’re doing. I have huge admiration and respect. In our final few minutes, is there any message you think you would like to leave for our generation around the future of leadership? What is your message to our generation and the next generation?

I want to think about how we can continue this work when I’m not here. I have been working with a lot of young people, in particular, a lot of young men, surprisingly. I’ve also worked with young women, but I’m mentoring many young men. They’re hungry for something new and different. It is a new narrative about who they are as human beings, this whole masculine-feminine divide we grew up with.

They’re looking for something so much more inclusive in terms of who they are, how they want to be in the world, how they want to have families, how they want to teach, and how they want to do their work. I feel so grateful that they have this desire to see a different kind of future that is different from our expectations. I do believe that dignity is at the core of it. That’s why they contact me. They said they believe in the notion that we all have dignity and what’s the world going to look like if we accepted that.

I work with a lot of people of color, diversity, equity, and inclusion issues. That’s a big one for me, wanting to give the people working in that field the tools. Many of them are talking not about diversity, equity, and inclusion but talking about it dignity, equity, and inclusion and using the dignity framing.

For me, that is a way of taking our legacy, the legacy of what we left or my legacy with the dignity work transforming that sense of who we are as human beings and human species. I want to see an evolution of understanding what it means to be human. If we could get dignity into the consciousness of everybody, we’re going to see a different world.

If we could get dignity into the consciousness of everybody, we're going to see a different world. Click To Tweet

That leaves me with another thought and a final question about when we talk about evolution. If we turn to a man who was called the revolution, the revolutionary terrorist Mandela, do you have any final thoughts you think he would share about the future of leadership? Not only him but he and The Arch, who had such a close friendship. Do you have any final words about the future of leadership in terms of Mandela’s legacy and The Arch’s legacy?

I would hope that not just you and I but the world learns more, and this is what you’re doing about Mandela’s blueprint and the Tutus of the world. There are others, but Mandela and Tutu stand out significantly for their leadership, courage, and humility. It is those two things. They realized that it takes strength to be vulnerable. They both realized that vulnerability is not weakness. Saying, “I forgive you,” is not a weakness. Saying, “I want to transform our relationship into one where we’re honoring each other’s dignity,” is not a weakness. Those are the sorts of enormous leadership challenges that they demonstrated, both of them daily.

Tutu always says, “There’s no future without forgiveness.” It takes so much to do that forgiveness work and reconciliation and to repair relationships that have broken under the weight of conflict. They have shown us the way. I’m not 100% sure the whole world is aware of exactly what they did behind the scenes and even out in the light of day. I want you to keep continuing this work about his blueprint and writing about it. Put Tutu in there too, when you talk about Mandela.

We’re doing this together.

I want the world to know more about the profundity and the extraordinary human efforts that went into being who those two were.

On that note, I’m profoundly grateful that our paths crossed. I’m so excited that we are going to be doing this work together. Having lived through the apartheid experience and the transformation and listening to your remarkable stories working with the wonderful arch, I look forward to building this movement arc together in the world. Thank you for your dignity and the message of dignity for the world.

You’re welcome.

Dignity consciousness, or what an international expert on conflict resolution, Dr. Donna Hicks, calls Mandela Consciousness, ensures that nobody can take away your dignity. Dignity is your inherent value or worth. You’re born with it. It is different to respect, which is earned. We may be different and unequal in positions of power, but we are all equal in dignity.

This is beautifully captured in George Benson’s ‘Greatest Love of All’ lyrics. He sang,

“I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadow.

Should I fail or succeed, at least I lived as I believe. 

No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity

Because the greatest love is happening to me.

I found the greatest love of all inside of me.”

We’re living in a world of chaos, crisis, and conflict. Donna’s remarkable high-impact international work with the late and great South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu in a BBC series on conflict resolution in Northern Ireland, coupled with her work in other countries like Israel, Palestine, Libya, North and South America, Cuba, Colombia, Sri Lanka, and many more highlights the role of dignity and indignities in creating and resolving conflict.


LBF 39 | Leading With Dignity


Dignity is the unspoken human conversation. How to lead with dignity creates a pivotal new pathway in preventing and resolving current conflicts worldwide, both large and small. It helps us redesign systemic structural indignities, heal personal indignities, and organizations create cultures to evoke the best in all people.

Acknowledging another’s dignity, resisting the temptation to violate another’s dignity, and repairing dignity violations can and will heal our deep divides.

Until next time, remember that leading boldly is about making thoughtful, clear choices, and bold leadership is about taking bold action one bold step at a time. One step for you, but together, a giant step for humanity. Take care and take thoughtful, bold action.



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About Dr. Donna Hicks

LBF 39 | Leading With DignityDr. Donna Hicks is an Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. She was Deputy Director of the Program on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution (PICAR) at the Weatherhead Center for 10 years. She worked extensively on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and as a third-party member in numerous unofficial diplomatic efforts. In addition to the Middle East, she has worked in Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, Colombia, and Libya and has conducted several US/Cuba dialogues. She is the Vice President of Ara Pacis, an Italian non-governmental conflict resolution organization focusing on conflict’s human dimension. Dr. Hicks was a consultant to the BBC, where she co-facilitated encounters between victims and perpetrators of the Northern Irish conflict with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The encounters were made into 3 television programs, Facing the Truth, which was aired throughout the United Kingdom and on BBC World.

Dr. Hicks has taught courses in conflict resolution at Harvard, Clark, and Columbia Universities and conducts training and educational seminars in the US and abroad on the role dignity plays in healing and reconciling relationships in conflict. She conducts Dignity Leadership Training in corporations, schools, churches, and non-governmental organizations. She is the author of Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, published in 2011 by Yale University Press. Yale University Press published her second book, Leading with Dignity: How to Create a Culture That Brings Out the Best in People, in 2018.


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