How does identity influence leadership?

Students, faculty, and staff participate in a demonstration to show support for the protesters in Ferguson, MO at George Mason University.

We know that the traditional vision of leadership is broken (and we know that this isn’t an original idea) because it does not recognize the cultural implications of leadership. We thought of leadership as someone who was giving orders. This was someone who had a unilateral vision of what needed to be accomplished and gave orders for how things should be done. Leaders were generals, kings, CEOs. Leaders were somehow appointed by a higher power (not necessarily a spiritual power). We knew that we had to listen to these people because that’s the way it was. We had to assume that they knew best.

Due to structural power systems, the people who generally held (or hold) these positions are rich white men. This is due to the collusion of the US white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist, patriarchal forces. When hiring for a position we are usually focused on the experiences of the candidate from previous positions and we frequently forget the uneven distribution of experience that favors some over others. Which means that some people are habitually left out of new opportunities because they haven’t been given a chance in the past so they can’t get one in the present either.

The Social Change Model of Leadership Development (SCM) (which borrows a lot of ideas from cultures outside of the white male hegemony) recognized some of the issues that preceded it and was a way that higher education researchers responded to the singular leader idea. That helped continue to push student affairs educators to recognize that leadership is interdependent and that leadership can come from groups. We started to recognize that we need to be able to disagree in a manner that moves the group/movement/idea forward. This borrows some of the concepts from Anarchist politics and consensus building which is not a frame of mind that many within the US have which is due to our majority rules mindset. Bringing everything to a vote and having a majority rule on everything can be a major hindrance to progress within a group.

But even so we can come to consensus and make decisions as a group that ignores the realities of the white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist patriarchy. (The Supreme Court has been doing this recently). We need to ensure that we recognize the privileges and power that we hold that stems from our social identities that we frequently do not choose. I did not opt-in to White Privilege but I can choose to be conscious of it and opt-out through continuous action and critical reflection.

I was asked recently by a colleague what the next “big thing” in leadership education (on college campuses) is going to be and I think it’s going to be related to helping our students understand what the cultural impact that their identities have on their leadership qualities and skills because it matters. How you grew up influences how you see the world which has a could have a huge impact on how you work with a group and what you do with your skills in the workplace. While I mentioned the SCM, I think it’s important that we use that simply as a framework. We can help our students and ourselves develop our own understandings of our identities within the context of our society. We need to be open about what it means to be a member of a dominant group and what it means to be in an oppressed group. We need to explore privilege and advantages and how we benefit from them over those who don’t receive them. It’s critical that we start having this conversation to create a society where we can all be at decision making tables rather than how things are going now.

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