Subscribe to the Leadership with Heart Podcast:

In this episode, Heather Younger speaks with Dr. Karen Johnson, Equity and Inclusion Administrator for the Washington Department of Corrections about her leadership style, her drive to lead, and her leadership conversion story. She also shares her unique view and purpose for working with the incarcerated and those that serve them.

Key takeaways:

  • It doesn’t matter how much you know, but how much you care.
  • Take care of yourself, so you can take care of your people. In turn, they will care of you and your customers.
  • Realize you are human and give others permission to do the same.
  • Be grateful even for painful feedback.
You’ll surely love this episode. Listen and learn!

Dr. Karen Johnson is the Equity and Inclusion Administrator of the Washington Department of Corrections since 2018.  She is passionate, driven, and has more than 20 years of experience and leadership in federal and state government.

Johnson served as the strategic operations manager at the Employment Security Department, chief administrative officer with the James E. Van Zandt Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and regional Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) program manager for the Veterans Affairs Ann Arbor Healthcare System. Previously, as the strategic initiatives executive at Department of Social & Health Services, she led the development of a respectful, equitable, diverse and inclusive (REDI) workplace culture to achieve organizational excellence and results.

Johnson earned her Master of Public Administration and doctorate in Urban Studies from Old Dominion University. She is a Certified Master Respect Facilitator and a Certified Diversity Professional. Karen is currently pursuing the Certified Diversity Executive credential, and is a 2018 participant in the Leadership Women America program. Also she currently serves on the Special Education Advisory Council and the Washington Statewide Reentry Council.


Right here, Right now

I am right here—present, in the moment, in the now—embracing everything that confronts me and slips my way right here, right now.

My life’s purpose is to work towards liberty and justice for all, until justice rolls down like water. People being treated justly and fairly is what gets up me in the morning.

I get to build my legacy through unapologetically championing and preparing others to embrace, emulate, and embed a culture where everyone commits to collectively valuing, including, and respecting each other. I get to show up and help others to begin addressing the biases and the bigotry that has impacted the lives of our people.

People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care. – Dr. Karen Johnson #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

It Takes a Village

I am doing this work with those we serve which is the incarcerated individuals, and those who serve them. 

In my life in the correction, I am not fully convinced with who needs the greatest help. Are they the ones behind bars to which we have the key to open their cells, or the ones who have the key, but are imprisoned by their minds and hearts to which we do not have the key? 

I see my work as the key to begin unlocking the hearts and minds of the staff.

My people would say that I am a transformational and authentic servant leader. They will tell you that I am there to serve them. That has thrown many people off because many believed that as leaders, particularly in the corrections, we bark orders and tell people what to do. But that is not how I show up. 

I believe that alongside strategies of respect, equity, diversity and inclusion, there has to be active listening, foresight, and empathy. Leaders should be feeling, understanding and living what others have lived. They have to be healers while bringing awareness, demonstrating commitment, and encouraging staffs to commit to growth and freedom. 

There also has to be a sense of community and team building. It takes a village to a raise a child. I believe that it also takes a village to do good work. We need to be able to expand the village and uplift them as we lead.

In this high-tech age, leaders are required to demonstrate appreciation of people for who they are and what they do. – Dr. Karen Johnson #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

Cut yourself some slack. Realize that you are human. – Dr. Karen Johnson #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

Loving Myself Adequately

In my journey, I had to learn how to adequately and properly love myself so that I can have the capacity to love others adequately, too. I talk about love here as a verb: an active, intentional, and tangible decision. 

Learning how to love myself changed the trajectory of my leadership philosophy. To this day, I am thankful to those individuals who spoke the truth.

What is going on in us impacts what is going on with the team. If we do not have self awareness, self-reflection, self-correction, and growth, that doesn’t give anybody permission to do the same.

Take some time off. Encourage others to do the same. – Dr. Karen Johnson #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

If we take care of our people, their care towards the people entrusted to them will extend to us. – Dr. Karen Johnson #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet


Subscribe, rate and review the podcast on Apple Podcast

Listen to the podcast on Spotify