When We Get Power
A meditation on the changing landscape of leadership, a reflection on the demands of leaders of color, and an answer for those asking what I’m doing next.
The day I realized the organization I had just become CEO for was saddled with a $3M deficit was a horrendous day. I was looking at our bank balance and spreadsheets and the revenue pipeline and I could feel the ice in my stomach. My face got hot and I got up and took my dog on a walk. I cried for 3 blocks. I kicked the air. Three miles later I was home and staring at the ceiling. The next few months were the turnaround project of a lifetime.
I broke trust in a layoff no one saw coming and rebuilt it all alongside my team, a group of ten women of color who were as determined as I was — we would not fail this community. We reduced the team to a third of the size and still met every outcome that we told each community member and funder we were going to meet.
A year later, our financial situation stabilized and we were in what my office called our “Living room” in an all-team meeting discussing the shifts we were going to make in our org chart to create more sustainability for the organization. I had spent the previous year trying to get resources into the team, specifically pain points that existed for entry to mid-level staff. I was starting to turn my attention to the executive function of the organization. I had made a unilateral decision to move a senior leader into a General Manager position. I felt like I had been talking to people about the needs across the organization, and I decided the need for the shift independent of a formal process.
I was so exhausted.
The effort to keep the ship afloat while fixing the $3M hole in its side had ground me to dust, it had ground US to dust. I knew I couldn’t continue to be the primary person formally doing internal management and external strategy/fundraising. I needed the pain to end. I wanted us to get to the next stage so desperately, and the General Manager role was going to help get us there.
I will never forget the silence that came after the announcement. I hadn’t heard that kind of silence since the day of the layoff. My team — the most empathetic, emotionally intelligent, astute group of people I had ever had the pleasure of working around — was shocked and upset. We had spent a year discussing how we were going to be a place that distributed power — we had made it one of our core values.
While I tried to dress it up, what I had just done was make a decision on my own that impacted everybody. They wanted and were going to demand the distribution of power. The year that followed was full of trying to go back to the record scratch of that moment to figure out what went wrong.
Our staff and communities want and deserve more than systems that treat them as disposable or incidental. When we hear about “politics” playing a bigger role in the office or “tension escalating internally”, this is what our teams are communicating.
They want power to both support our missions and determine their future — but literally, none of our systems or best practices are built for anything but the hoarding of power at the top. Once I became an executive at Code2040, I was surprised to discover the many ways these systems have been set up inequitably. I would lift up a rock and find all the inequity bugs scrambling beneath it. When I cleaned those bugs out, I would find another rock covering up another systemic mess.
What I learned from my colleagues after that announcement was the thing that is so hard for so many of us to grapple with — the folks holding us to account are right. They may not always be precise or have all the language to express what they are experiencing, but they are right. We may not always have the ability to understand or “fix it” but they are right. We don’t want to admit it, though, and will enable each other’s denials.
I went to so many people in my ecosystem after this incident and got such positive feedback on my performance, other CEO’s telling me things like “You are working so hard, OF COURSE, you get to take care of yourself too.” or “People don’t like change. That’s it.” or “Oh this isn’t that big a deal, they’ll get over it” or “Well did they have better ideas? How would they have done it?” Not a single person at my level said anything that helped me understand the friction. I remember one of my teammates telling me “This isn’t about you. We trust you. This decision is fine but the way we got here doesn’t feel right.” My team was trying to teach me and I couldn’t access the advice I needed to listen, translate, analyze, learn, and execute.
When we step into leadership roles we inherit their legacy. We inherit the legacy of oppression associated with people who have previously had power. The harm of the past (and present) done by others is not uncoupled from the power and responsibility you now possess. When you have never had systemic power but your role confers power onto you — that can be shocking. We won’t always know the answers for how to manage inequities and we will struggle to anticipate how those inequities show up. But we must commit to finding those answers.
Responsible leaders are compelled to essentially run two projects: (1) untangling the predicament of workplace inequity; (2) the larger mission they are trying to execute on — from building equitable tech to diversifying an industry to college access to healthcare equity to dismantling the police state and many others.
It is not a coincidence that the folks willingly taking on both of those responsibilities are often people of color. Before anyone uses that as ammunition to continue to not invest in leaders of color — white leaders should be held accountable for both projects, too. For far too many, this first task is still optional at best and dissent that needs to be squashed with career-ending consequences, at worst. It is painful but truthful to say that we do not expect of white leaders what we expect from people of color.
We are experiencing a generation of leaders of color that have divested themselves from the respectability politics that preceded them. They have invested in providing support to their communities and demanding barriers to equity and justice be taken down rather than investing in systems for the assimilation of our people into white dominant cultures. This has propelled them into positions of power — making it all the more devastating when they try to parallel park the car that is generations of inequitable practices and can’t get it right.
There is no way one leader can.
And yet, the loss of faith from staff or community looms large and devastating. Folks with power in our current institutions have committed a lot of harm with their power; we are right to feel the anger that comes with its continuation. We are also right to feel despair at how little we have to do to lose that faith.
In dozens of conversations with leaders of color, I hear their fear that people will “find out” that wars are being waged internally while they do excellent work externally. This struggle and our inability to resource it, develop new practices, create support systems and visibility around it is burning out some of our most astute, strategic, connected, and imaginative leaders at all levels. It is impacting movement leaders, business leaders, politicians, artists, and likely many more.
There is an absolutely heartbreaking parallel struggle happening to our entry and mid-level folks. They come to organizations that aren’t predominantly white institutions or who say they are doing things differently, with incredible hope. They join people they have admired and believe working for/with them will be different. They sign up and give their all.
Then slowly they have experience after experience where they still feel treated as disposable to another person’s vision. They give feedback about the pain and genuinely don’t know the system’s solution for solving it.
Leaders then tell them, “if you are going to give feedback, you have to bring solutions.” Which leaves people with less experience to either try and create solutions for deeply ingrained inequity or to be silent. This time, the silencing is coming from one of their own — leaving them with even less faith in institutions. Often this creates the kind of frustration and anger that drives them to want to burn it all down.
Undergirding these highly racialized leadership predicaments is how the internet has changed us and the very nature of power.
For millennia, if you had money then you had other aspects of power. You had access to information, decision-making rights, decision-makers, and an amplified ability to drive the reach of your ideas — and to withhold all of them from others.
The internet changed all of that. Never do we have to go into another doctor’s office without having done research about what our conditions could imply because access to information is not blocked by prohibitively expensive books or education. Our ideas do not have to get run through and accepted by a media gatekeeper, often a white male, before being spread around the world by social media. We no longer have to have personal connections to reach chiefs of staff or agents to raise ideas or push back on the politicians, artists, and authors that shape our world — we “trending topic” our dissent.
Our social experience of power is forever changed, and our institutions operate off the very same frameworks — frameworks that require seniority, money, personal connections, and the performance of masculinity and whiteness as prerequisites for gaining power. This exasperates the generation of folks who are internet natives, puzzling those of us who got passports to internet-land in our teens, twenties, thirties, and forties.
As in every other instance, people of color are the canaries in the coal mine, hit first by what is to come for all of America. I am telling you, these painful shifts and the lack of resources to navigate them are coming for everyone.
When people ask me why I left Code2040, I describe the generational battle I believe we are in the middle of. How deeply I believe the next few decades will grow increasingly violent. How I wake up in the middle of the night worried that the loss of life we saw in the last year, a loss of life hand-delivered at the intersection of institutional decay, white supremacy, and fascism — is just the beginning of what we are about to fight.
You can’t fight internal wars and be as strong for the external ones. Don’t get me wrong, we need to embrace conflict as a necessary part of our citizenship within institutions. Learning how to have fights without throwing each other away as a first option is a fundamental skill for our time. These conflicts are good for us and make us better.
But some of the current fights are not that. We hinge those battles on booting people from our ranks instead of tearing down the systems they are working within and how they are trained and incentivized by them — predestining the next leader to the same fate. We don’t have all the language and systems we need to hold the very important and non-negotiable calls for accountability. We don’t have all the language, systems, and resources we need to analyze a world in which power has started to move differently and the old norms and laws ensure it continues to operate in paradigms that didn’t even work for a homogenous industrial revolution, much less a diverse digital one.
I have spent my whole life being poached from one turn-around role to another and doing, doing, doing as a result. For the first time in my life I am spending time fleshing out a hypothesis. I’m running my own focus groups, doing a listening tour, and pattern spotting. I’m coaching leaders, advising organizations/companies, and writing. I’m searching for what gets our institutions from where we are to ready for the fight of our lives.
Because as hard as turning around my last organization was, it was nothing compared to living through 2020 — a year that almost took my life and took the lives of people I love — and 2020 was just a preview of things to come.
We can’t be that far apart from each other for the fights that are on their way. We can’t accept this many people being disposable. So what I’m doing next is searching for what brings us closer. I learned so much from Code2040. I learned from the 200+ companies we worked with while I was there, I learned from our community, I learned from our team, and I learned from the coalition of other leaders — the people who were leading movements alongside us.
Every part of that vast community pushed me to be and lead better — to create when it seemed impossible. That is the moment we’re in, right now. Create when it seems impossible, so let me know if you wanna chat.