BLOG: Is authentic leadership anti-racist?


June 2020 has been a highly activism-charged month. It is crucial that it doesn’t stay just that: one month. Leaders need to commit to ongoing efforts to address any inequalities in their organisations or societies. But where should one start and why should leaders care about anti-racism?

When talking about oppression, one understands it as the quintessential nexus between prejudice and power. Those who hold leadership positions in various spaces, whether political/social/business/organisational, are the ones who hold the power to influence and create certain cultures that promote specific values that advantage particular groups of people. 

There is, thus, an ethical correlation drawn between leaders and power, ever since Plato and Confucius, and even spelt out with Rousseau through the so-called ‘social contract’. Power here is lent responsibility. Leaders receive power in exchange and with the aim to attain the social good. 

The subjectivity of what represents ‘social good’ has shifted throughout the ages. In Ancient Sparta, infanticide was a common practice for the ‘social good’?—?only infants held physically fit were kept alive. The Spanish monarchs Ferdinand II and Isabella I were the ones who funded Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. They were also the founders of the Spanish Inquisition?—?both for the ‘social good’. 

In 2020, debates on whether we should fund or defund the police, whether we should redistribute our taxes, whether we should employ more diversity and inclusion policies are all happening within the same debate, with a slight nuanced difference. Today, ‘social good’ has become social justice because justice addresses the lived experiences of minorities whilst good is an inherently subjective term, loaded with unilateral decisions from those in power.

The Greater Good almost always precedes a greater evil

So, if leaders should and want to actively listen, if they want to commit to social justice, which implicitly assumes a commitment to anti-racism as one facet of social justice, where does one begin and how does this affect their authentic leadership style?

Authentic leadership is one of the most popular contemporary leadership styles. It talks about leaders who seek honest feedback, who are genuine, who engage in reflection and who bring to surface their own lived authenticity (their background, their experiences, their stories, their lessons). 

The four pillars of authentic leaderships are:

  1. Self-awareness?—?“Know thyself”
  2. Relational Transparency?—?“Be genuine”
  3. Internalised moral perspective?—?“Do the right thing”
  4. Balanced Processing?—?“Be fair minded”

However, insights from the Multicultural Women’s National Conference highlighted that only one group rated Being genuine high, proving that the majority of people feel like they need to hide their true, authentic selves to fit in. At the same time self-awareness and doing the right thing (internalised moral perspective) were voted high among all groups. What does this tell us about leadership in the workplace? 

It talks about cultures that encourage reflection, which is great, but at the same time don’t encourage enough reflection in reference to bias. It talks about cultures that encourage ethical decision-making processes, which is again amazing, but meanwhile the moral perspective relies on oneself, not on an organisational approach to ethical stances?—?organisations fail to openly condemn racist practices, or micro-aggressions or fail to protect whistleblowers. 

Leaders or, equally, employees are often encouraged to ‘rock the boat, to challenge the status quo, to take a stand’. These kind of statements may as well be empty words if they are not grounded in lived values, an internal moral compass, continuous self-reflection and authenticity. Authenticity is, thus, essential for anti-racism and for social justice. 

Authentic leaders should actively pursue to embrace allyship, promote a culture of inclusion and embrace intersectionality

There is no easy way to do all of the above. It is hard work. It is strenuous, long-term work. But it is the kind of work that will build a more equitable society. 

Work your way through this 7-point checklist to ensure an anti-racist self-awareness and authentic balanced processing: 

Day 1. Admit personal privileges (have I ever been advantaged by my gender/skin colour/race/ethnicity/social status/financial situation/physical abilities/ mental abilities/ religious (non)adherence? etc.)

Day 2. Admit personal and implicit contribution to the way society is (am I upholding the values of the existent society? by not caring where my taxes go/ by not making donations or investigating what causes require donations and why? by never challenging my friends/relatives/coworkers’ views?)

Day 3. Admit that structural injustice is not a matter of personal morality (admitting that you are upholding a sexist or racist society has nothing to do with you being a morally good person, take out morality from the equation so you can focus how to dismantle injustices. For example, you might want to start a new paid internship scheme at your company for recent graduates, which is admirable, but this will almost certainly disadvantage non-degree holders. Assessing whether your company should always require a degree certificate and admitting to disadvantaging non-degree holders does not make you immoral, but it acknowledges how your actions might contribute to an unjust system. Focus on how to correct the wrong, not on how to defend your morality).

Day 4. Start reading some great books/ articles on the topic (or listen to a podcast). Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race, has a podcast. White Fragility by Robin Diangelo is a super short book that explains a lot of niche terminology. Another great read is How to be an anti-racist by Ibram X. Kendi. 

Day 5. Diversify your social media (follow accounts that talk about subjects you are unfamiliar with, follow activists that can raise awareness about this issue and from whom you can learn more)

Day 6. Practice humility (you might now more in Day 6 than you knew about yourself in Day 1, but this doesn’t mean you know everything. Your learning never stops. 

“I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of colour. I define as a white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist, or in the ‘choir’, or already ‘gets it’. White progressives can be the most difficult for people of colour because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived. None of our energy will go into what we need to be doing for the rest of our lives: engaging in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual antiracist practice. White progressives do indeed uphold and perpetrate racism, but our defensiveness and certitude make it virtually impossible to explain to us how we do so.” (Robin Diangelo, White Fragility)

Day 7. Repeat. 

In terms of actionable impact, discuss in your teams, with your line managers, with your Trustees what can be done to improve the organisation: review HR practices, review unconscious bias and diversity training, educate other colleagues on what you’ve learned. On a more personal level: sign official petitions, donate to social justice causes, buy from local and minority-driven businesses, buy books written by Black authors, correct someone on social media who is ignorant. 

Leaders, take a stand, rock the boat, challenge the status quo. You have the power to create the biggest, fastest and most impactful change today. Embrace the kind of authenticity that encourages allyship, inclusion and an intersectional understanding of context. The world is diverse?—?represent it well.