My leadership has shifted in more ways than I am able to fully convey. One important difference is my approach to leadership was initially rooted in my own desire to give back, at least that is what I believed. However, as I have observed myself and others in positions of leadership, our tendency as women and especially women of color, to want to give back is not a natural reaction to society but it may be a practice we are groomed to accept. ‘Giving back’ to our communities or to those in need has become an apologetic recognition of our own privileges or advantages and can be a trope disguised as benevolence. However, what is underneath may be a deep desire for something more, for me, it was connectedness and belonging.
From childhood, I was conditioned to believe my value was connected to my contribution, often contributions that were fully altruistic and sacrificial. In Black culture, this is personified in a Mammy type character often portrayed as a singular personification of Black women who remain steadfastly supportive of patriarchal and white supremacist systems. I believe my initial leadership positions early in my career were framed in this manner and though I was uncomfortable with taking on those types of roles, I lacked the language to address it or create a framing of my own.
As my career progressed, my leadership developed under immense pressure to understand and work within the power structures around me. At each pivotal moment of progression or promotion, there was an introduction to another layer of power meant to ensure I remained a public reflection of leadership and internally answerable to some greater, opaque authority. It is important to note that I remained agreeable to that authority as it provided structure and clarity to my role, reach and position, however, it also played on my internalized need to please those around me often at my own expense.
This pattern changed when I became the founder of an organization and as I began my fellowship.
It is interesting to look back and remember how eager I was, as a founder and leader to find a similar power structure in which I and my organization might become beholden to and in return receive the connectedness and sense of belonging I yearned. I opened the organization to collective leadership, shying away from the label of “Founder”, I adopted co-lead titles for those who were the first to participate, granting others power and rights stretching far from the bounds of what would have been equitable and proper recompense. I immediately sought to ingratiate long-standing institutions within my new found organizations' orbit, introducing the work as if to ask permission. It was astonishing how appropriate it seemed as leaders who never knew me and had little understanding of my work took no issue with accepting a role of authority over both. If these leaders were not men, they were women who directed me to answer to a man of perceived statue or power whom she believed was a better fit to carry my work. These powerful women were leaders themselves and had no qualms directing me to relinquish the meager power I had the audacity to claim. I wish I could say I was principled enough to see the ploys of the powerful encroaching upon me and resist it but I was more than blind to these rituals, more to the point of welcoming.
The trouble came in the form of my attachment to my initial mission, which was that all people should have equal access to economic power. I was naive enough to believe building economic power was an accessible goal and just insightful enough to know when another leader did not. With a mind to accomplish this task my discipline was immovable, even against the power structures I had yearned to cling. I measured each and every potential compromise or quid pro quo against its propensity to frustrate the mission. Without care or counting the consequence I nonchalantly ignored the unspoken rules of engagement. I rushed past the rings I was expected to kiss, Kindly denied under the table deals, and ignored warnings to “stay in my lane” if any of those actions presented a potential threat to the goal; in the end, they all did.
Leading with a goal to ‘give back’, and carrying an unconscious burden to please others, I sacrificed the safety of recreating the power structures that I had come to rely on and faced the stark realities of leadership by taking an unprecedented position to stand in my convictions and against what was expected. In those moments, without knowing it, I stood in my leadership. It has taken almost a year of weathering chaos, power struggles and inexplicable attacks on my work and character to understand why I endured so much turmoil. Although these experiences left me feeling frustrated, confused and often hopeless, I have the ability to reflect with clarity and I see how, without knowing it, I simply learned to walk in my power.