What can business leaders learn from activist, academic and author, Angela Davis?

Angela Davis at WOW Festival

Brought up in segregated Alabama, Davis’s commitment to her causes saw her join the revolutionary socialist Black Panther Party, lead the Communist Party USA of the 1960s, and co-found an organisation working to reform the prison-industrial complex. Having published multiple works since the 1970s, Davis, now 73, continues to write and speak out about civil and women’s rights, poverty, peace and healthcare.


In the run up to International Women’s Day 2017, Angela Davis spoke at the Women of the World festival to a sold-out audience at London’s Southbank Centre, and thousands more globally via live stream. We dissect her core messages for those pertinent - regardless of political persuasions - to today’s business leaders, and diversity and inclusion champions.



Today’s business world, particularly in evolving areas like technology, changes at breakneck speed, causing business leaders to feel that change is something that happens to them rather than at their bequest. For Davis, optimism is key to bringing about successful change. “The most effective conversations,” she says, “take place within the context of activism, of trying to transform the world. We always have to believe that ultimately we have to change the world.”


While some change happens overnight, other change can take months, years or even lifetimes to effect. That knowledge, says Davis, can fuel pessimism. But as someone desiring to effect organisational or cultural change in the workforce, you can choose instead to let it be a powerful motivator.

“[Today] we are drawing upon forces and energies that have been created over decades, so now we’re in a sense reaping the fruits of the work […] living the imaginaries of those people, activists like ourselves, who have been long gone.


“I like to think today we are living the world they wanted. Just as we are creating the terrain for something that may happen 50 years from now. Therefore, we can expect that others will be inhabiting a world that we imagine. A very new world that is impossible if we do not engage in the kind of activism that is required today.”

Teams must be empowered to play their own parts in successfully delivering a shared vision of the future. The role of the leader is to manage momentum and motivation as teams navigate the road towards goal completion, beset as it may be with unseen obstacles.



Many men throughout history have committed to helping bring about gender equality. But in recent times, we’ve seen a surge in so-called male agents of change who actively participate in the pursuit of gender parity in the workplace.


Inclusion of male ambassadors is critical to ensuring the debate itself is as diverse and inclusive as the desired outcome, argues Davis.

“Progressive men need to take the initiative themselves. They don’t need to be invited.”

As a leader, you have the power to ensure your organisational culture is one in which every individual feels able to take initiative, confidently knowing that doing so will be encouraged and celebrated. Does your women’s group welcome male agents of change? Does your LGBTQ network have an open-door policy for allies? Are new joiners assured that by filling out disability forms, reasonable adjustments will be met? As a leader, your words and actions can have powerful reverberations around the organisation: how will you ensure you get your messages just right?



When faced with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, today’s business leader is pre-programmed to seek the wise counsel of those who’ve already weathered the storm – bosses, mentors, sponsors, and other senior figures who’ve been there, done that, worn the T-Shirt. “Oftentimes, we assume all we have to do is find out what the famous activists of the past did and we have the answer,” says Davis, recalling her one-time approach to finding new ways to campaign.


“But that’s not going to solve the problem. Because those of us whose experiences are connected with the past, have not been able to extricate ourselves from some ideas that are often very regressive,” she argues.


To counteract regressive thinking and to discover new ideas, Davis advocates reaching out to a generation whose upbringing and experiences, so different to her own, are primed to deliver fresh insight.

“The most important learning I do at this age in my life is learning from young people,” she says.

As the future leaders of your organisation, what can incoming graduates teach you about their view of the workplace and the wider world? What new initiatives might spring forth from active knowledge sharing between millennials and older colleagues? What new cross-generational working relationships might prosper and flourish as a result of deeper, mutual understanding? What fresh insight into your customers of the future could send your organisation down a transformative path to unimagined success?



“Somehow or another we always use as our standard those who are at the centre of the structures we want to dismantle,” says Davis. Challenging traditional thinking around equality and how its achieved, she asks: “Why would women want to become equal to men [...] without thinking about what it is we need to do in order to [first] transform that society?”

As a leader, you have the opportunity to redefine how your organisation arrives at parity across the organisation. Instead of focusing on how you bring up women to the seniority and salary levels of men, what if you were to think about how you transform the leadership culture to be diverse and inclusive in every sense? How can you ensure every community across the gender, sexuality, ethnic background, disability and age spectrum has a seat and a voice at the debating table? What can you, as a leader, do to set a new standard of inclusivity, unrestrained by traditional standards of how someone in such a position ‘should’ behave?



Throughout her address, Davis dissected her past mistakes and the lessons she’s taken from them.


In her 1981 publication, Women, Race And Class, she wrote that women must invite men to enter the gender diversity debate. What she should have written, she reflects, is that men themselves must take the initiative.

And so, “We learn as much from making mistakes, maybe even more,” is Davis’ final gift to today’s leader.

Many public-facing business leaders already reject the notion of the CEO as the savvy, untouchable, business guru; choosing instead to project authenticity and an honest assessment of their failings. To do so is to gain the trust of your teams, to foster cultures in which innovation can flourish without fear of making mistakes, and to encourage other leaders to recognise how their unique strengths and weaknesses can be complemented, rather than diminished, by those of their peers and colleagues.






The talk opens at 21:35



Photography: Alice Boagey