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Shedding our White Leadership Paradigms

The Quest to Lead With Cultural Competency

For many leaders we work with, equity is core to their mission and a critical reason why they do the work they do. Dedicating their lives to meaningful work that benefits someone beyond themselves is key to their identity.

But let’s be candid. The racial reckoning ignited by the Summer of 2020 (rightfully) exposed how far many of us are from showing up with self-awareness and humanity. It has required all of us to reflect on what it means to be a “good person” having a positive impact. The spotlight is shining squarely on our leadership, and the cultures of the workplaces we have built.

We have talked a lot about the enormous pressures facing all of you today. Leadership is more complex than ever and a lot of us, including ourselves at Leading Elephants, feel deeply the responsibility to upgrade our cultural competence. We know our teams expect and deserve more from us. Today, we want to explore the stories we have absorbed about what it means to be a leader, and how they can hurt ourselves and others.

Today we welcome all readers but speak specifically to those asking “How am I showing up as a white leader?” Humbly, we hope BIPOC leaders might also find this helpful given how white narratives may have impacted their lived experience.

Collectively, we focus on the question

“How can we step into a story that provides space for all to thrive?”

Examining Our Origin Story

The American dream tells us “With hard work, you can do anything.” At our own dinner tables, our families told us romanticized stories that speak to who we are as people. We had great grandmothers who raised five or six kids alone in the Great Depression through grit and self-sufficiency, and for one of us, a mother who cared for parents, kids and a full-time career when her alcohol-addicted husband left to “find himself.”

As kids, so many of us absorbed narratives that said security is not guaranteed, but that through hard work we can go to a good college, get a good job and link together a series of successes that will create a meaningful life. And, at the same time, taking care of others was a deep underpinning of so many of our faiths and cultures.

But that narrative has an ugly underbelly:

  • What you have (or have not) accomplished then becomes an indicator of your ability and hard work

  • And your status and accomplishments, then, are an indicator of how good or how worthy you are

In short, our identity becomes bound up in this picture of success and goodness. But then this “dream”, embedded deeply in families across America, has two unintended outcomes: insecurity and scarcity.

In leaders we coach, it shows up often in imposter syndrome and worrying (a lot) about what others think of them and whether they are living up to the narrative of who they should be and what they should accomplish. According to a survey by Vantage Hill Partners, being found incompetent is the number one fear of executives worldwide. In her powerful workshop series How to Hold Whiteness Responsibly, Laura Brewer talks about feelings of insecurity being at the core of the white psyche.

The second outcome of the American dream is that it pits us in a race for status, recognition, and impact. We feel good about the life we have built - until an Instagram post pictures an old colleague with someone famous, or LinkedIn reminds a classmate built a bigger nonprofit. Suddenly, what I have accumulated and accomplished no longer feels like enough. I may in turn stop sharing information, giving opportunities to others or being generous with time and connections as I develop a laser focus on achieving more.

How the Myth Distorts Our Leadership

Most of us by now are familiar with the term the “Myth of Meritocracy.” We have learned the ideas that “you can get on that mobility escalator and ride it as far as you want” is just not true when so many don’t even have access to the escalator. Jerrod Walker of InspirED Solutions explained it this way: “When we assume meritocracy is the way the world works, we can assume that if others don’t win, it’s because they didn’t try hard enough.”

And there is another insidious impact: The myth turns our work into a platform to prove - to others, to ourselves, and to our inner critic, that we are “on it.” If my accomplishments are the most obvious measure of my worth, it leaves me hustling to be seen as smart, competent, and good.

That means when I get the nod to lead an important project:

  • I want to do it perfectly

  • I work hard to bring the right solution that my boss and other senior leaders see as smart

  • I make deadlines happen through superhuman feats

  • I create careful project plans to roll it out and explain the logic and rationale

  • I tightly script communications and meetings, making sure there are no unexpected surprises

In short, I “hero up.” I take it all on my shoulders that I must make this happen - which is something I have often been rewarded for. But if you read more closely, you’ll notice my focus is on me and making my boss happy - not on the people I purport to be serving.

In my hustle to be seen as doing it perfectly, I am somehow pressed pause on my own values of equity and inclusion. If I have already determined best practices, where have I left space for the ideas of the people closest to the ground? If I carry this out with a sense of urgency that exhausts our front line people (yet again), how have I honored their value? And if everything must go according to script, how am I leaving room for people to bring their brilliance to the meeting and co-create something even better?

Together, We Turned The Hustle Into a Culture

For decades, this hero way of working felt perfectly “normal” to us. It was the culture of the workplaces we grew up in. But here’s the thing we haven’t acknowledged - it is actually a “white” way of looking at the world. Other cultures may emphasize instead creativity, community, relational ways of working or grass roots movement building. The white culture emphasized getting things done.

This culture of the white dominant class (coined “White Supremacy Culture” in 2001 by Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones) became our way of working and the standard of professionalism in America. Sadly, it advantages people who have decision making power - while devaluing others. It puts us all in a rat race instead of in connection and community. It fuels a mentality of winners and losers. And it tears against the very goals of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion that we are all desperately trying to live into.

The Call to Equity Leadership is an Invitation to Stop the Racket

At its core, we are in this hustle because we have missed a fundamental point.

We all have worth. Full stop.

No amount of perfection, recognition, or status will ever be able to give us something we already have. Simply by being human, we are worthy of dignity, belonging, and value.

We have to stop acting as if we can hustle our way to something we already have. And we have got to stop treating others as if they have to earn their worthiness in our eyes.

Author Jason Reynolds says that “Anti-racism is simply the muscle that says that humans are human. That’s it. It’s the one that says, I love you, because you are you. Period. That’s all.”

How We Can Begin “Something Different”

We love to think of White Supremacy Culture not as a list of “do nots” but as a generative place to begin dreaming about where “something different” is possible - a place where we honor the humanity in other people and in ourselves. And a place of abundance where we can take place in a grand act of co-creating that celebrates what everyone has to give.

Over the coming weeks, we will look together at how we begin shifting white supremacy in ourselves and our cultures:

  • Our next blog post explores the applications of the seminal framework created by Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones and show how we can shift our leadership from the old ways of doing things to to create thriving human-centered organizations.

  • In our Leading Inclusive Change Workshop we practice applying those moves in community with others working to lead change in a way that centers and honors the people we serve.

  • In May 2021 we will look at White Supremacy Culture in our management and join InspirED Solutions to bring that to life in Managing for Trust and Equity.

In the meantime, here’s some homework we can all practice this week:

  • Ask yourself: Where might I have absorbed the belief that what my value or worth is dependent on what I accomplish?

  • Reflect: When is my orientation to getting things done working in conflict with my commitment to inclusivity?

  • Notice: “When do I see myself “heroing up” and taking it all on my shoulders?”

  • Take a breath and ponder: “Is my commitment to equity deep enough that I am willing to be changed?”

This work of leading for equity is admittedly uncomfortable, especially in the spotlight of leadership. We think, though, that creating a more human-centered workplace is worth the effort. And we are in it with you, learning ourselves, every step of the way.


Interested in learning more about the practical steps of leading inclusive change? Join us for our foundational workshop series, Leading Inclusive Change.


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