The Role of the Privileged Leader

I have been grappling with something.

In a time when many white people are coming to terms with white supremacy, fragility and privilege, I notice many of us are running away from the conversations or experiences we must fight head-on.

On social media, white friends are “canceling” or “unfriending” those they see as racist. This is not being anti-racist — this is another form of white privilege. Being able to block out that “noise” or venom or ignorance can only be done if you are not a person of color who is forced to confront discrimination in small and large ways every day.

In 2018, I wrote a piece explaining why I will continue to speak to folks I perceive to be racist. I explained that this work of being an ally and working with communities different from where we were born comes with an “and” not an “or” — those of us who are white and want to see change must use our privilege (which just being white confers upon us) and access to power (which many of us hold by virtue of our net worth or networks) to change the hearts and minds OF OTHER PRIVILEGED PEOPLE.

More than two years after publishing that piece, I find myself sharing this perspective more than ever before while helping, and at times pushing, white friends and colleagues to act. There seems to be a troubling concern about saying the wrong thing, compounded with potentially being “called out” for not building and retaining a diverse workforce, not addressing their own biases or not activating their privilege. This trepidation, along with fear of being identified as complicit in perpetuating systemic racism, is leading to deafening silence, some hand-wringing inertia and, even worse, performative gestures.

I understand that concern, that paralyzing fear, the inclination towards safe, but visible acts. I led an organization working in communities of color for two decades. By making painful mistakes in both my words and my actions (all the while having the “best of intentions”), I learned how to better navigate conversations and situations that scared me. But I had to be called out privately and publicly to change. I refer to that transformation as becoming a bridge-builder.

This may sound warm and fuzzy — like an important non-profit pursuit but I believe that in this moment all great leaders must build bridges. They must bridge what they think they understand with what is true and bring together disparate ideas and experiences to build a bridge to a better future. Unfortunately, most leaders are better at building ladders than bridges and so at this moment they are being called to employ skills most have not mastered.

I have been trying to find the right words as to why this is work for the privileged to do. One of my favorite people in the world, Baratunde Thurston, has a brilliant podcast, “How to Citizen.” In the Prelude, he speaks to activist and author Valarie Kaur about her Revolutionary Love Project.

She said more eloquently than I can what I have been feeling:

“We as citizens all have different roles in the labor for justice at different times so if you are someone right now who has a knee on your neck like so many black and brown people do… it is not your role… your job is to stay alive. But if you are someone by virtue of your white skin or whatever privilege you wield who is safe enough and brave enough to sit with those kinds of opponents then perhaps it is your role to tend to their wounds…”

We must be the bridge builders. The question is: how can we all become better bridge builders? I believe the foundation of this work for each of us starts with owning who you are, what you have and how you got to where you are. We must be pushed to be self-reflective. It also requires deep humility to accept that the expertise and skills you possess as a leader may not serve you well in becoming an effective and conscious bridge builder — especially around issues of race and equity.

Many of the white leaders with whom I and my colleagues now work are admired for having built powerful brands, products and services. These thought leaders hold platforms to speak to many others. Exceptional by most standards, these same leaders are struggling to summon the right words and, most importantly, actions. Skills to navigate implicit bias, systemic inequity and realities of power and privilege were not taught in most business schools or management training programs. They were not taught in most families and communities, especially in those of privilege.

Many successful white leaders have not had to overcome barriers, direct and intersectional, around race/ethnicity, socioeconomic background, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical ability and more. We hold tremendous privilege. In issues of racial justice, just attempting to have empathy for Black and brown colleagues and friends is not enough. Nothing will change until we own and acknowledge that issues of white supremacy are a white problem that we need to work proactively to solve. Leaders also need to continue to have hard conversations not just within their companies, but outside with those with whom they disagree because they are in the rooms of power where those conversations happen.

Authentic, lasting personal and system change moves through and beyond following a list of visible best practices to address diversity in the workplace. Transformation does not occur if one reads enough social media posts giving advice and suggesting actions. While important, many swift, discrete actions cannot address the bigger issues at hand and are far too small to respond to this moment in time. As my colleague, Whitney Smith, always says, “Change in this work moves at the speed of trust. Having adequate time to build relationships, understand the people and the issues and nurture growth is essential to real results.”

We have to better understand ourselves and our own biases and we must allow ourselves to have courageous and brave conversations with authenticity and vulnerability. We must acknowledge that we are afraid to say the wrong thing and then say it anyway and be open to criticism. These internal and outward actions are steps to lay the foundation for the bridges that need building.

This questioning, struggling and grappling is how each of us systematically builds new skills critical to this work, like emotional awareness, inclusion, humility, and disruption of the path of thinking to which we have become so accustomed. Leaders and those who hold privilege must construct these bridges while tearing down our own old structures.

It is our work to do — but also our privilege to have power to help catalyze true change.

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The author using her mic from the background to amplify other voices on stage

Entrepreneur, Founder, Adjunct Professor, Operator and Advisor. I love impact, innovation and inspiration. www.smklahr.com

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