Becoming An Authentic Leader: A Toolbox for Professionals of Color

June 20, 2017Authentic leadership can be a powerful inner resource as a toolbox for all leaders. By leading “authentically” from within, leaders can promote their values, provide vision, and engender confidence from their superiors, peers, and direct reports. Accessing and expressing an inner roadmap to authenticity can be a complex landscape for leaders of color to navigate. This article explores that landscape and provides a guide for navigating it. 

What does authentic leadership mean?

As a leadership coach who seeks to understand the impact that race, ethnicity, identity, and culture have on individuals and organizations, I have recently been thinking about how to help my clients manage contemporary leadership competencies similar to those covered in books like The Power of Presence, Lean In, and Leading with GRIT

A common thread through these books is that powerful leadership occurs when a person’s professional intention aligns with their authentic self. Brené Brown describes authenticity in her 2010 work, The Gifts of Imperfection, as “the daily practice of letting go of who we think we are supposed to be and embracing who we are.” Authenticity in the workplace can best be described as one’s ability to tap into those things that matter most—our values, ideals, and inner sources of power—all things that remind us of who we are. This concept of authenticity is very powerful, as it allows leaders to become unburdened by the expectations of others, and can enable them to tap into their most innovative, passionate, and productive selves.

A question that I have often considered is, does authentic leadership mean something different to people from diverse identity groups, specifically for professionals of color? Is this especially the case for individuals with visible differences, and those from racial and ethnic minority groups that face stereotypes about their competence, capability, and legitimacy, placing an undue burden on them in workplace settings in which they are confronted with the stereotype and, in some cases, must disprove it? For professionals of color, success and even survival in a majority culture organization may depend on many micro-choices of how to be, and how and when to speak up, lean in vs. lean out, manage up and manage down. They may be at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to looking, acting, and speaking like a leader “channeling” their authentic selves, when there are few leaders of color in the top ranks of an organization.

Is there a code that needs to be cracked?

In her 2014 article Cracking the Code That Stalls People of Color, Sylvia Ann Hewett states, “‘cracking the code’ of executive presence presents unique challenges for professionals of color because standards of appropriate behavior, speech, and attire demand they suppress or sacrifice aspects of their cultural identity.” Moreover, some argue that figuring out how to adjust and lead in any organizational culture is a core leadership competency—every leader must do it and all leaders must manage their own stories about challenges related to managing an organizational climate. 

In my coaching work with leaders of color, I have found that their internal dialogue is not just about their own story and challenges, but also includes external barriers and perceptions they must overcome. It involves a more nuanced discussion about leadership development beyond what is covered in the literature. Leaders of color may have to weigh the costs and benefits of showing up as authentic in terms of their self-expression and conforming to an organization’s culture and identity. The reality is that stereotypes, microaggressions, and bias are as deeply imbedded into an institutional climate as other norms—including how an organization communicates, makes decisions, and evaluates performance. These issues require acknowledgment. Mark Greer's article, “Overcoming Invisibility,” describes the mental and physical harm that subtle slights based on things such as race or ethnicity can have on individuals of color, leading to feelings of disillusionment, chronic indignation, pervasive discontent, anger, and depression. Therefore, the task for leaders of color—to manage trigger events and conversations, and still focus on success and authentic leadership—can be a daunting prospect. 

What kind of guidance should you seek?

Many professional-development programs for contemporary leaders include a focus on executive presence, which helps leaders tap into their gravitas, values, or grit (resilience and persistence) in pursuit of their goals. Leaders of color may benefit from additional professional-development guidance to gain a nuanced understanding of how the dynamics of race and ethnicity affect how a leader presents themselves, and how they are perceived by others. 

Four things you should do now.

Here are a few tips that I recommend to leaders of color that I coach:

•    Build an intentional self-care plan. For diverse leaders, acknowledging the impact that things like microaggressions can have on one’s mental and physical health and performance is important. Whether an insult is blatant or subtle, it can be helpful to: 1) take stock of things that have a negative effect on you; 2) practice responses to such insults so that in the future you remain powerful and intact rather than depleted; 3) strive to achieve coherence between your response and emotion; and 4) engage in deep breathing, mindfulness, or pause practices to re-center on your values. 

•    Be fully clear on your values in the context of the organizational dynamics. The self-check could include: deciding what you gain and lose by showing up as your authentic self, and understanding when you need to expend political capital to be true to your values.

•    Engage a support network within and outside of the workplace. Such support groups can provide a needed outlet. Workplace employee resource groups or affinity groups that are aimed at improving diversity and inclusion and engaging mentors and sponsors whom you trust to give you both counsel and feedback can be invaluable. Consider securing a leadership coach for one-on-one coaching to create a safe space to regularly access one’s inner wisdom and establish healthy, career-advancing habits.

Take the risk to get the reward.

For leaders of color, achieving both professional success and living a truly authentic leadership style can be fraught with risk. The issue requires a more nuanced application of the traditional leadership development frameworks. To ensure that leaders of color fully live up to their potential, a deep, courageous commitment to look at the culture and make necessary changes is essential. 

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public. 


The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.