How does identity influence leadership?

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.

Mindfulness and Social Justice part 2

I started writing about mindfulness in the context of social justice work back in February and thought that it would make a good series as there is always more to learn in both social justice and in mindfulness because there is so much personal work (self-discovery, whatever you would like to call it) to do. This post is a continuation of that irregular series, but focusing a little more on background of why I had the thought to link them and some resources I’ve found since thinking of the idea.

Mindfulness and meditation are becoming more visible in the mainstream eye (see Time Magazine and the Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks). Both of these linked articles reference the power of being present and the Seahawks leveraged that concept and applied it to focusing in football. I’ve been working on growing in this area through a regular yoga practice and through regular meditation (that’s been more irregular recently) and one day as I was reading An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life by the Dalai Lama I realized how interconnected my work to deepen my understanding of mindfulness is to my work as a social justice educator and I began to see connections as I continued to read books about both mindfulness and about social justice. This really opened up some new pathways for me that helped me become a more effective educator.

I started to think about the ways in which I try to sit back and listen to others when having a dialogue about social injustice. I actively listen and try to understand, as best I can with my combination of social identities,other perspectives and other experiences. I pay attention to how I’m feeling and try my best not to let those emotions steer my contributions to conversations. I pay attention to the emotion in others and make attempts to be supportive. I pay attention to how much space I take up in the conversation. Mindfulness helps me do all of this critically because I’m paying attention to what’s happening around me. I’m absorbing it to understand the dynamics of the room. (I’ll also say that I did some of this prior to my attempts to be more mindful because I’m an introvert).

I’m currently reading Diane Goodman’s Promoting Diversity and Social Justice (I’m reading the first edition. A second one was published in 2011) and chapter 9 is focused on “Issues for Educators.” Goodman writes about increasing educational effectiveness part of which is doing our own personal work to fully understand our own backgrounds and where we are in understanding our identities. It means working through the issues that may get us caught up in responding to an unruly participant rather than focusing on educating/training the whole room. Goodman writes about using mindfulness as a strategy to avoid some of these common issues. “In situations in which we feel we are not being conscious or are immersed in negative reactions, it can help us return to a more centered way of being and depend our understanding of what is really going on” (Goodman, 2000, p. 183). By using mindfulness, Goodman argues that we become more effective educators. We can more holistically recognize what’s happening within ourselves to develop a better approach to the training/workshop. We can also be more effective in listening to others’ perspectives and understand what kind of support that someone may need. We can aptly discern the vibe of a room from a negative or resistant vibe to one of true curiosity. These are all huge in helping us move ourselves and our participants/students forward with the difficult concepts and conversations that comes with social justice.

Goodman, D. (2000) Promoting diversity and social justice: Educating people from privileged groups.  Sage Publications. Thousand Oaks, CA.