Generating ideas, connections, and action

Blind Spots (Part 3)

At Creating Space, Elissa Perry shared a framework on White Supremacy Culture from Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones as she invited us to reflect on the ways in which this culture shows up in our organizations. Since then, I have been thinking about how these characteristics are often the default in our leadership development practice as well. Today, I wanted to discuss the remaining characteristics which fall into two areas: how we value what we do, and how we address power and conflict.

I  think about the question of what we value when involved in evaluating leadership development programs.  Okun and Jones describe two related characteristics of the values of White Supremacy, “Progress is More, Bigger” and “Quantity over Quality.”  Many people currently served by formal leadership programs are situated within non-profit organizations where more and bigger too often define success. A bigger organization, serving more people may be a poor proxy for contributing to social justice or equity.  Gold standard organizations may suffer from many of the characteristics of white supremacy described in earlier posts, like paternalism or individualism. By incorporating a frame of systemic racism and equity into leadership curriculum, programs can help participants to bring a different evaluative lens, one that focuses more on whether people closest to the problems being addressed are well represented in the leadership of the organization or how power is shared within the organization as more central questions than how much money an organization has raised or how many people served.  The site Racial Equity Tools is a great resource for bringing a race conscious lens to leadership work.


As we challenge the individual bias in mainstream ideas about leadership, and look more at how people lead and learn together, we understand that the quality of relationships is the secret sauce of how people work together to achieve common goals. In evaluating leadership programs a focus on quantity (the number of individuals served who believe they are better leaders) can miss the real story about the quality of trust relationships that have formed among participants, and a valuing of relationships that translates into the kinds of things people are accomplishing by working more successfully with others. The good news is that leadership evaluators are now asking new questions like, “How can we evaluate trust?”


The last characteristic I wanted to raise is “power hoarding’ and how it is reinforced by, ‘defensiveness’, ‘right to comfort’ and ‘fear of open conflict’.  As mentioned, individualism has permeated our thinking about leadership, causing us to focus a hierarchical model of a ‘leader’ who exercises leadership over, often believing that they, as leader, know best. This model implies power over others rather than leading with others. Leadership programs may promote a more relational and collectivist model of leadership as part of their program, and yet assume they know what is best, based on best practices, research or their own experiences. While an analysis of broader experience has value, there are also opportunities to co-create the programs with input from participants, source the experience of participants as contributors to peer learning and draw participants into experimenting alongside staff to learn together about the supports that are most useful.  


The power dynamic between program staff and participants may be most noticeable when participants raise criticisms about the program and propose changes. Anyone who has facilitated meetings or programs knows the tension between trying to keep things on track and the need to pay attention to what is emerging. How leadership program staff respond to new ideas or concerns will set a tone in the program for how power operates, and how conflict is used as an opportunity for learning, or not. I don’t mean to make this sound easy because it can be complicated, e.g. programs may have been put in place with staff or consulting contractual commitments, a solid case may have been made for the program that has already been funded with a commitment to the fidelity of that approach. The key to managing these conflicts is transparency about challenges to incorporating feedback so that staff and participants can work in partnership to ensure the most relevant and effective supports possible. Although LLC does evaluations, and I am not trying to put us or other evaluators  out of work, we would love to become more obsolete as leadership programs develop a more evaluative culture that activates continuous learning and openness between staff and participants.


Leadership programs, especially those that are doing a good job of diverse recruitment can be microcosms of the environments in which many people lead and provide opportunities to learn how to deal openly with conflict, especially conflict around race. Leadership program staff are not necessarily equipped to facilitate constructive conversations about race but the good news is that that there are plenty of people who are and leadership programs can help to finance this important work by funding experts in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to support their programming. We have heard stories about fractures within leadership cohorts when conflicts are not handled well and some leadership programs who feel ill equipped may avoid these conversations in attempt to maintain comfort and cohesion within the group.  


In this case, “comfort’ is really only maintained for those in the cohort who are part of the dominant culture, and at the expense of people of color. I have been thinking a lot about how we can become more sophisticated in the ground rules we create, and our expectations for learning. I have found myself thinking about  our facilitation of spaces and about how we have to do a little more unpacking of some of the language we use in approaching our work, e.g. creating a safe space, or assuming good intent. I think it goes for leadership programs as well. Safe space does not mean a ‘comfortable space’ and ‘good intent’ does not absolve people from the impact of their behaviors, but sets a stage for important learning moments. Without acknowledging our defensiveness and opening ourselves to hard conversations about race and power, we will miss the opportunity to develop leadership programming that models a different relationship to power, and equips participants of leadership programs to shift power and create greater equity.


This is part 3 of 3: