Inclusive Leaders Pass the Rock

By Bruce Berger | August 2021

Daniel Payan, my long-time professional colleague and friend, recently succumbed to a decade-long battle with cancer. His passing evoked many rich memories, including the story of his “leadership rock.”

I met Daniel 30 years ago in his office in Paris, where he was the communication leader for Whirlpool France. I was then head of global communications at Whirlpool Corporation. As we talked, I noticed on his desktop a baseball-sized rock—smooth and egg-shaped, mottled in grays and browns. I finally asked him if the rock was special in some way, or perhaps part of a collection? He laughed and said, “Ah! You see my leadership rock!”

He then shared the fascinating story of a leadership training session earlier in his career. The training focused on the crucial role of managers, or leaders at any level, to encourage and include the ideas, insights, and voices of all team members in their meetings and working groups.

To demonstrate this important role, the trainer placed a small rock in the center of their conference table. He told them each person had a somewhat different view of, or perspective on the rock: no one saw all sides. Therefore, everyone around the table needed to hold the rock and share their view of it before their session concluded.

When you hold the rock, he explained, you express your thoughts and concerns about the topic at hand, without interruption. When done speaking, you pass the rock to someone else at the table, who then holds the floor and speaks before passing the rock to another. The trainer encouraged them to keep a personal leadership rock, like the one on Daniel’s desk, as a reminder of the importance and power of inclusion of different voices and perspectives.

“Real leaders pass the rock,” Daniel said. “Holding the rock means you count. You belong. You are part of the team, the culture. We all need to hold the rock, Oui?”

Yes, we do, Daniel. Inclusion is a vital part of the bedrock of great leadership. Today the word is frequently and passionately exhorted, far more than in 1991. So, to move from our many words today about the need for inclusion—to take real steps to improve inclusion in our teams and organizations—perhaps we all should add a leadership rock to our offices and meetings. And then pass it on.

Bruce Berger is the founding director of The Plank Center & a member of The Plank Center’s board of advisors.