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The secret to becoming a brave leader isn’t courage. It’s honesty.

Dee Dee Ricks, left, moderated a discussion with Kimberly Davis, a senior executive in the National Hockey League for Northeastern's Women Who Empower leadership series. Screenshot by Northeastern University

The secret to becoming a brave leader isn’t courage. It’s honesty, according to Kimberly Davis, senior executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives, and legislative affairs at the National Hockey League,  who spoke at Wednesday’s Women Who Empower event. 

Davis outlined five topics that will “haunt leaders if they don’t authentically, honestly, and openly wrestle with [them],” she said. Those topics are: the limitations of your own knowledge, the younger generation, racism and diversity, the planet, and your own relevance.  

Inspired by a blog post she once read on overcoming these roadblocks, Davis said: “Leaders must be more proactive in coming to grips with today’s new norms. They must face their greatest fears head-on and get on with the business at hand.”

These lessons resonated with her because, as a child, her grandmother taught her to be unflinchingly honest when she was worried or didn’t know something. As the first Black woman to graduate from Harvard University’s PhD program in education, Davis’s grandmother emboldened her to “be brave enough to move into that awkward place of exploration, to usher in a new era of change,” she said. 

In explaining how she became a senior executive vice president in the foremost professional hockey league worldwide, she said it required a huge leap of faith. 

“I knew virtually nothing about the industry. I had never even played hockey,” she said.

Senior vice president for university advancement, Diane MacGillivray, hosted Wednesday’s Women Who Empower event. Screenshot by Northeastern University

During her tenure at the NHL, Davis has prioritized making hockey, a traditionally white sport, more culturally available to other communities. One of her initiatives for lowering the barrier of entry is to encourage street hockey, which has fewer infrastructure and equipment costs than ice hockey. 

Greater minority representation has also been a priority for Davis, who says that when kids see people like them on the ice, it meaningfully inspires them and makes them believe they too could be hockey players.  

Pivoting to leadership examples in the business world, Davis remarked that since companies run by women irrefutably outperform companies run by men, “building a culture of female empowerment can no longer be viewed as a token gesture at meeting any kind of diversity quota.” 

But, she continued, women are often deterred from pursuing leadership roles because of implicit and explicit cues they begin receiving at a young age. This kind of gender conditioning rears women who believe “they’re not the smart ones, they’re not the capable ones,” Davis said. 

This pattern can be broken, however. Davis cited research that showed when young women are exposed to strong female role models, they’re more likely to believe that women can hold leadership roles. 

Davis believes that in her time at the NHL, more women have joined the business side of the operation, in part because of her presence. 

“I can’t tell you the number of women who have come to work for the NHL because they’ve seen myself and Heidi Brown, who is our CMO [Chief Marketing Officer], as the two most senior women in the sport of hockey sitting around the executive table,” she said. 

“There are so many barriers to the sport that we’re breaking down,” Davis said. And whether those barriers involve race or gender, “I think we’re going to make some real progress.” 

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