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Blind Spots: The Role of Leadership Development Programs in Inhibiting or Contributing to our Progress Towards Racial Equity

Since Creating Space, I have been doing a lot thinking about the ways in which leadership programs often promote leadership models that reinforce the dominant culture. At Creating Space, Design Team Member, Elissa Sloan Perry, Co-Director of Management Assistance Group, shared a presentation on how white supremacist culture shows up in our organizations based on an article by Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones. We focused most of the discussion at Creating Space on organizational culture, which I later realized cannot be separated from leadership culture because after all, most leadership programs are preparing participants to lead in an organizational context.


I strongly recommend their article. They share thirteen characteristics of white supremacist culture, all of which resonated, and for the sake of this article and beginning this discussion, I chose three to share that I think are provocative and reveal leadership characteristics being cultivated in leadership programs that help to reinforce white supremacists culture. (In future articles I will share additional characteristics.)

I don’t know how many times I have heard ‘its lonely at the top’ as a way of expressing the problems of being an Executive Director. It’s a telling sentiment. Individualism that is part of the dominant culture has made its way into normative thinking about leadership. People tend to believe (and are often taught) that being a leader means being the one with the vision (answers) who can make things happen. As a result, leaders do not delegate to others because they believe their ideas and abilities are superior. This bias about exceptional individuals causes us to look for the person to credit when something important is achieved and miss the fact that work is often accomplished by many people working together. Looking for credit and individual recognition drives competition and plays out in and across organizations. Leadership programs can bolster this distorted sense of individual importance that elevates the ideas and skills of the individual over the wisdom of the group. More leadership programs are countering this (though not enough programs) by emphasizing humility and listening, by developing team or collaborative programs, by making the individual work of leadership more about self-reflection and ego management rather than a toolkit for managing others.


Paternalism goes hand in hand with individualism. It’s part of the dominant leadership thinking that believes leaders know best and are leaders because of natural skill or even leadership development training, without of course considering access to opportunity afforded them and not others by systemic racism. I know this is a simplification but there are a number of leadership development programs (though far less than there used to be) that are developing leadership as a general skill set divorced from context. It’s something to consider as we professionalize the non-profit sector. In short, the key question becomes who has the best understanding of a problem that a non-profit focused on achievement gaps may be trying to address, the non-profit staff trained in organizational management or the kids, parents, teachers and neighbors in the school. Of course a ‘both/and’ response taps diverse resources but sadly, focus is usually on non profit leaders. Some leadership programs recognizing this problem are including processes for community engagement as part of their leadership development activities and encouraging values of listening and humility. A more systemic question though would be why are we trying to teach people to do a better job of listening to community instead of figuring out how to get leadership supports and resources directly to communities.  Another example of this problem and the need to address this issue more systemically is that in a survey many years ago (lets hope it has changed) leadership programs serving mid career professionals in the non-profit sector were receiving and investing significantly more (often 10X more) than programs who were supporting grassroots leadership.


Talk of ‘burn-out’ and ‘self- care’ are becoming conversation staples in the non-profit sector. Oken and Jones talk about the sense of urgency as a characteristic of white supremacist culture, and I found myself thinking about how urgency and burnout intersect. Leadership programs nurture the passion and commitments of people in the sector, and rightfully so, because we are all working on issues we feel deeply about. We often express this commitment by working long days and long weeks until we are utterly exhausted though we probably don’t use that word. Then the leadership intervention will probably teach us about the importance of self-care offering some frames that help for a time until they become another thing on the long ‘to-do’ lists of the already harried activists. In the industrial age the workforce was pressed into working faster and harder and when people ‘burnout’ there were others to take their place. It’s a mechanistic and oppressive view of people that serves production and has infiltrated the sector; and it’s hard for us to counter when the problems we are tackling, degradation of the planet and the massive incarceration of young people of color, are truly urgent.  Still, there is little to suggest that if we just work harder and do more of what we are doing that we will make more progress. Leadership programs need to become the place where we can stop, reflect and build meaningful relationships with others who can help us asking the bigger questions about what is wrong with the system and how to change it.