Authenticity, Integrity and Leadership for People of Color

Photo courtesy of Canva Team

In a recent article in The Economist, Art Hopkins of executive advisory firm Russell Reynolds Associates identified how corporations invite failure by not seeking out People of Color (POC) to fill integral roles within their firms. “Companies often treat recruiting diverse people as compliance or risk mitigation, rather than a business opportunity,” he says. The harsh truth exists that many large companies view establishing a culturally diverse environment as somehow making them less competitive, a perspective that is not only tragically untrue, but counterproductive. Hopkins notes, “An inclusive culture is the bedrock of a hiring process that broadens the definition of best talent.”  It is precisely this inequitable landscape that instructor Gayle Johnson plans to help students navigate in her class Leadership for People of Color. Photo courtesy of Fauxels

Johnson says she was inspired to bring her years of experience and accumulated knowledge to bear in this course because too often POC seeking leadership opportunities live with the fear of compromising themselves in order to succeed. “As a leader you want to make an impact and you want your voice to be heard and you want to be respected as a leader,” she says. “For this to happen, POC think they need to change who they are…that is not so.  So, I want to help POC to be able to show up as their authentic self and be an effective leader.”

Becoming an effective leader comes in part from the mentorship of effective leaders. Johnson confesses she had the advantage of receiving this kind of guidance starting from childhood. “To be honest I had two mentors and leaders in my life, my mother and father,” she says. “They were leaders in their profession and in the community, so I was raised around leadership. My mother saw I had some natural leadership skills and starting at age 12 she guided and positioned me to lead people my age in various community activities.”

Thanks to her exposure to the basics of leadership from a young age, there was little question Johnson would find it her life’s calling. “(F)rom being a campaign manager for political campaigns in my twenties, to being a manager at the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, a marketing director for a start-up high tech company, a director at United Way of King County, a leadership position at a non-profit focused on education (all in my 30s) to a Chief Executive in my 40s and now a business owner in my 50s, I always saw myself as a leader. That most definitely played into my career choices.”

The challenges facing leaders and potential leaders of color are legion and navigating them requires a level of talent not shared by people of privilege. Johnson cites a recent brief by Frances Kunreuther and Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, “Nonproft Executives and the Racial Leadership Gap: A Race to Lead” to illustrate this point; “The challenges leaders of color face include being called to represent a community, inadequate compensation, lack of budget to do their job, lack of role models at higher levels and especially women leaders of color and pressures of their workload resulting in negative health outcomes.  Although this report was focused on the nonprofit industry, leaders of color experience these same challenges in other industries. Other challenges are feeling isolated, always having to prove themselves, having to compromise their values and feeling like their voices are not heard.”

Johnson has faced countless challenges as a black woman in a leadership role, but the experiences she values most are those requiring her to be authentic and stand in her integrity. “I once had to make a decision between doing the work or compromising my values,” Johnson recalls. “I was working for a nonprofit that focused on education and partnered with public schools.  I was the Community Engagement Manager, which required going into the community to gather information about teaching quality in public schools.  We had completed one round of engagement, but discovered that in order to meet the qualifications of our grant we had to repeat the entire process. The CEO of the organization wanted me to go back to the community to do another round of outreach to communities. It was basically a redundant exercise as the information gathered in this round was not going to be included in the process.  Because I had a strong positive reputation in the community, and am a strong believer in the value transparency, I let the CEO know that my credibility would be compromised, and I was not comfortable repeating the outreach. I refused to do it and resigned from the organization shortly thereafter. Understanding your values and beliefs and how they can make you more confident in speaking your truth is vital.”

Johnson says there are several key practices to ensure success as a POC seeking a leadership role. Of vital importance is identifying someone in a leadership position to act as a mentor and advocate. “You need to find someone who is willing to promote you when you are not around, guide and support you as you are becoming a leader and eventually give good counsel when you attain a leadership position.” Additionally, POC need to understand the importance of stepping outside their comfort-zone.  “Sometimes POC will build relationships with other POC but not reach out to their white counterparts.” She also puts a great emphasis on selfcare. “Staying healthy, mentally and physically is important,” she says. “Eating healthy, having a meditation and exercise routine will help with stresses that come with being a leader and especially a leader of color.”

There is not enough space here to discuss in detail all of the benefits of a leadership model that recognizes the values of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, but here are some of Johnson’s highlights: “There is opportunity for better decision making,” she says. “Especially considering input is coming from different angles. This just makes for better decision making. From this comes an increase in creativity as diverse backgrounds bring about diverse solutions. As a result, we see increased productivity. Photo courtesy of Rebrand CitiesAccording to a McKinsey & Company study on diversity in the workplace, US public companies with diverse executive boards have a 95% higher return on equity than do those with homogeneous boards.  Diversity brings about more diverse creativity, which leads to higher productivity.” All of which helps to promote a stronger global view, “When you have a diverse workplace, it makes your workplace rich with diverse cultural experiences and human experiences. When a workplace is authentic about diversity and inclusion, everyone feels they belong.”

Johnson is quick to note the value of empathy and emotional maturity in leadership is not to be overlooked. When mastered, they are abilities that only strengthen the workplace. “Empathy is our ability to put ourselves in another’s shoes.  When you are able to do that, it brings about building trust with others and building relationships,” she says. “I would say empathy is probably one of the most emotionally intelligent skills to have in a diverse workplace.  Being able to understand where others are coming from, what is impacting them, and how they are feeling is the most human way of connection.”

Looking forward to Leadership for People of Color, Johnson plans to have students identify and discuss their core values and what that means as a POC in the workplace. “When you are true to your values, it’s easier to speak your truth and make decisions that keep you whole and confident,” she says. “That may sound simplistic but it isn’t.  It’s so important to know yourself as a human being.  When you show up confident, able to connect with others, and understand the reality of the environments you are working in, you are able to minimize some of the stress that comes with being a leader of color. I hope my students take away tools to help them be an authentic leader as they navigate the leadership ladder and in turn become a great leader for their workforce and the organization they work for.”

Photo credits:

Canva Team


Rebrand Cities