Harvard Business review

Lessons on Leadership and Community from 25 Leaders of Color

Everyone has their own sense of what makes a great leader, informed largely by what they’ve already seen or experienced. However, this “I know it when I see it” approach, known as familiarity bias, can have narrowing effects, especially when it comes to recognizing the specific attributes that leaders of color bring.

Now consider that those attributes can be the key to unlocking great leadership — for everyone.

“If I have to leave out the part of myself that is positively identified with being Black, then no matter how good I am, I am not the best I can be,” says David Thomas, the president of Morehouse College and the H. Naylor Fitzhugh Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School. “When I walk into a room, being Black is one of the tools I can pull out, and oftentimes it can be the most powerful one.”

To better understand the relationship between leadership and identity, we talked to 25 leaders of color across the social sector, including both nonprofit and philanthropic leaders, and drew on our client work. Our research identified several noteworthy assets — “powerful tools,” as Thomas put it — that leaders of color bring to their organizations.

To be sure, we’re not suggesting that people of color inherently lead differently by virtue of being born a certain race or ethnicity. Rather, the ways people of color move through and experience the world can affect how they lead. This goes beyond experiences of historic marginalization to include the connection, meaning, and joy that these leaders can draw on from their cultures and communities. As a result, we find that there are assets and skills that many leaders of color develop and excel at because of the experiences and perspectives their identity brings.

Importantly, because these attributes are developed, anyone can adopt them through intentional learning and engagement. Likewise, organizations can encourage that development by examining how they assess leadership competency in hiring and talent development. “Too many organizations fail when it comes to recognizing and unleashing the diverse slices of genius in their organizations,” says Linda Hill, faculty chair of the Leadership Initiative at Harvard Business School. “Most of their performance management and reward systems are designed to select individuals more suited for the present than the future.”


When studying the motivations, relationships, and skillsets of leaders of color, we found that in some cases, strengths common among good leaders of all identities — including strong communication skills, confidence, and having vision — might manifest differently in leaders of color due to differences in culture and experiences. Take innovation, for example. One leader we spoke to who works in philanthropy and is a member of the Navajo tribe makes the case that the very survival of Indigenous language, culture, and identity in the face of a history of discriminatory U.S. government policy requires innovation, and his leadership style exhibits those lessons and examples. In other instances, strengths are uniquely based in identity and therefore more common in the leadership approaches of people of color. Here’s what our research found those strengths look like in practice.

Motivation

Equal Justice Initiative founder and executive director Bryan Stevenson holds up the value of proximity — having leaders who come from the communities experiencing a particular issue — as a path to better solutions in the social sector. But proximity can also powerfully strengthen motivation by creating the elusive personal tie to an organization’s purpose that can make a leader highly valuable.

Indeed, one of the most common things we heard from leaders of color was that they felt “called” to their work. Some spoke about being driven by a desire to address challenges that they themselves or their community experienced. Others talked about the desire to create new definitions of what good can look like for future generations. The motivation of collective success and the accountability it brings are strengths that these leaders can bring to any work they do.

Relationships

Given the demographics and power structures of the U.S., people of color often learn throughout their lives how to authentically navigate and build connections across lines of differences, including both with white allies and other communities of color. As a result, their networks are typically more heterogeneous, which can be a powerful asset to draw on to learn, grow, access opportunities, and navigate challenges.

More important than simply having diverse networks is the ability to then recognize, value, and tap into what each person brings to the table. This can mean that leaders of color are good at drawing lessons from nontraditional places that can open up transformative thinking. For instance, after she heard from clients (fellow mothers) that making nutritious family dinners was a struggle, the Black CEO of a food bank in Seattle innovatively overhauled its operations by banning food donations to avoid the glut of canned foods and random offerings slim on protein and fresh produce, and the food bank now fundraises to buy all food.

Skillsets: Leading Self

The qualities of good leaders show up in several dimensions within themselves, with others, and with their visions.

Self-awareness

The starting point for developing into a great leader that experts like Bill George and Tasha Eurich often point to is a strong sense of self-awareness. Such awareness can be cultivated through self-discovery and deep reflection. That kind of journey is familiar to many leaders of color, as it can be part of a lifetime of learning to navigate racialized experiences.

W.E.B. DuBois famously wrote about the concept of “double consciousness,” or the idea that Black people have the ability to see themselves as they are and also see themselves how white people see them. To various degrees, all people of color can possess versions of double or even triple consciousness that come with intersectional identities. The benefit of self-awareness is that leaders who better understand themselves will have a clearer sense of what they want to accomplish and what talents they bring to get there, as well as what talents they’ll need other people to bring.

Comfortable with discomfort

An advantage of not being “pale, male, and stale” is the expectation of discomfort that being different might bring. This can lead to a heightened ability to adapt to new experiences, overcome obstacles (including the resilience and tenacity that comes with that), and see alternative possibilities. It is said that innovation requires a certain ease with discomfort. “The power of being an outsider is you are constantly building your own alternative,” said Urvashi Vaid, an Indian American LGBTQ rights activist and social movement strategist who co-founded the Donors of Color Network. (She passed away this spring shortly after our interview.)

Skillsets: Leading Others

At the heart of being a good leader is how you manage people. Whether leading a team or an entire organization, the goal is to both inspire others and empower them to succeed.

Empathy

Based on our observations and our client work, the leaders of color we studied demonstrated a high degree of empathy, often seeking to better understand and advocate for others. Experiences of marginalization and being part of a community that has experienced injustice can create a greater recognition of the humanity of others. While this can provide obvious benefits to how these leaders approach their work, empathetic management of your staff allows individuals and the organization to better thrive. These leaders stood out for creating a sense of belonging and centering the well-being of their teams. They also incorporated practices such as four-day workweeks, office-wide mandatory time off periods, flexibility, pay equity, and creating culturally sensitive workplaces in their organizations, while often honoring families and family time.

Observation and active listening

We found that leaders of color often embrace observation and listening in their work styles, creating a more holistic understanding of situations. The ability to recognize what is not said is also a valuable skillset that offers a leader insight. We found many successful leaders of color across various identities can develop this skill by navigating a lifetime of both cultural norms within their communities as well as complex interpersonal relations and interactions that can be layered with implicit bias and power dynamics. An Asian American philanthropy executive, for example, credited her skills of being able to interpret a diversity of cultural body language across the Asian diaspora with helping to develop her listen-first, respectful leadership style that employees say feel more inclusive.

Collaborative leadership

Collaboration is widely seen as a trait common among effective leaders and organizations. The relationships and networks of leaders of color often give rise to updated models of leadership that embrace more collaboration. That might look like co-leadership. For example, the nonprofit Rooted in Vibrant Communities radically reinvented organizational leadership by naming four co-executive directors.

It might also look like distributive power structures in networks and coalitions — think the Movement for Black Lives. Or it could mean a CEO who leads more collaboratively, encouraging authentic thought partnership and inclusive decision making from across the staff. Linda Hill calls this “leading from behind” and argues that leaders who employ this style can harness people’s “collective genius” to build innovative communities with breakthrough ideas.

Skillsets: Leading with Vision

The best kinds of leaders have strong vision. Different vantage points can yield purposeful and expansive views.

Asset-based lens

Recognizing the strengths of every individual, including those you’re seeking to serve or support, can come more naturally to leaders of color because of lived experience that might include episodes where racism or bias caused their strengths — either their own or their communities’ — to be underestimated or overlooked. An asset-based lens recognizes the gifts and skills that all people and communities bring and surfaces root causes of issues. For example, feedback is a gift that can lead to service innovation, rather than a nuisance managed by a call center. Likewise, inequitable social outcomes aren’t a function of individual behaviors that need fixing but rather of persistent systemic headwinds. Focusing on root causes can lead to more effective organizations and greater impact.

Radical imagination

The “outsider” experience that comes with being a person of color can provide valuable perspective. As a result, successful leaders of color can call on a deep understanding of how to navigate existing systems while also imagining something completely different.

This can be seen in how A. Sparks leads the Masto Foundation, founded by her grandparents who were among the more than 110,000 Japanese Americans sent to internment camps by the American government during World War II. Under her leadership, instead of starting with the way grantmaking has traditionally been done, the foundation built anew. Honoring the Japanese American tradition of “gifting,” the foundation sees its own giving as an “expression of gratitude, respect, and a desire to contribute.” This means the funder is constantly trying to limit the amount of time and stress that process might cause grantees. Conversations replace formal grant applications, due diligence is focused on listening, and funding goes out the door within a month of grant determinations.

What Needs to Be Done Differently

In Bridgespan’s previous research with Echoing Green, we have seen the racial disparities of philanthropic funding up close, finding the revenues of Black-led organizations 24% smaller than their white-led counterparts and the unrestricted net assets of Black-led organizations 76% smaller. Latinx, Asian American, and Indigenous leaders experience similar funding gaps to varying degrees when compared to their white counterparts. Similar disparity trends exist in the private sector. Too often, those gaps exist because the assets of leaders of color are overlooked.

What is there to gain by better recognizing the assets of leaders of color? The Building Movement Project’s 2019 Race to Lead research offers a glimpse. According to the survey, people of color and their white counterparts fare better under leaders of color. The survey revealed that staff overall are more satisfied, more likely to want to work for their organization over the long haul, feel like they have a voice in their organizations, and assess that their organizations offer “fair and equitable opportunities for advancement and promotion.”

We entered this research hoping that highlighting the assets of leaders of color would inspire a rethinking of what is valued when it comes to good leadership. Our work allows us to clearly see how advantageous these assets can be for social change. For philanthropy, the implications are clear: fund more leaders who display these qualities. But it’s easy to imagine that this type of leadership could benefit any type of organization. That raises the stakes — it’s time to recognize and celebrate the assets of leaders of color.

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