Juneteenth: Symbol or Victory?

Key Takeaways:

  • Juneteenth is now a federal holiday, but some question if this is more than just a symbolic victory.
  • Research on espoused versus enacted values suggest that not acting in a way that reflects your stated values can lead to employee disengagement.
  • Leaders should ensure that their behaviors and actions match what they say they believe in so they can be effective managers.

On June 17, 2021, President Biden signed a law making Juneteenth a federal holiday. If you are not familiar, Juneteenth is the celebration of the emancipation of slaves in the United States.  After almost a year of elevated racial tensions (which I have written about here on Lead Read Today at various times), it is good to be able to celebrate a victory.

But is this a victory? 

A recent NPR opinion piece argued that Juneteenth is “symbolism without progress.”  In other words, they (and many others) argue that granting a federal holiday to celebrate the ending of slavery is fine but does nothing to rectify the racial injustices that are systematically built into many aspects of our society. Instead of a holiday, many argue that actual structural change should be enacted to promote racial equality.

An alternative viewpoint to this was discussed in a recent Washington Post opinion piece, which suggested that although Juneteenth is a symbolic win, we should celebrate anyway. 

So which is it? Is Juneteenth a symbol or a victory?

This reminds me of research on espoused versus enacted values. Espoused values refers to the values a person or organization says they hold, and enacted values refers to the values a person actually holds and demonstrates to others.

They often go hand-in-hand, but not always. And when they are not the same, problems may occur.

Andrea Howell and colleagues studied this[1]. Specifically, they looked at the level of job commitment employees feel if they believe their organization’s espoused values match enacted values — or if there is a mismatch.  They found that a mismatch can lead to lower level of commitment; in other words, employees felt less connected to their jobs if they thought their organization did not follow the values they proclaimed to hold. This is something every leader should keep top of mind.

For Juneteenth, the espoused values are that the United States values racial equality. The question becomes: Do the enacted values match this? Is our society actually doing the work to promote racial equality, instead of just saying we support it?

Personally, I don’t know if Juneteenth is a symbol or a victory; I tend to side with the “celebrate small wins but continue to push for bigger wins” camp. However, I do know that organizational leaders can be thoughtful about their own values and the effects it can have on employees.

Andrea Howell’s study reminds us that employees notice and pay attention to their leaders’ values. It’s one thing to “talk the talk,” but people care about whether or not you “walk the walk.” It isn’t enough to say you support diversity, equity and inclusion — you have to actually do the work and have your commitment reflected in your actions. If not, your followers will disengage and lose commitment to you and your organization.

Since the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and the resulting focus on racial justice in the United States, there has been much talk about organizations and leaders proclaiming their support for diversity without doing anything about it. 

Leaders: don’t fall into this trap!  Be sure that your espoused values match your enacted values so you can be the most effective leader you can be.

[1] Howell, A., Kirk-Brown, A., & Cooper, B. K. (2012). Does congruence between espoused and enacted organizational values predict affective commitment in Australian organizations? The International Journal of Human Resource Management23, 731–747.


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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.