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Blind Spots (Part 2): Are Leadership Development Programs Contributing to Greater Racial Equity or Inhibiting Our Progress?

Last November on the heels of our annual national convening, Creating Space, I felt compelled to sharpen the discussion about the ways in which leadership culture can work hand in hand with white supremacy to reinforce the status quo unless we are vigilant in our collective efforts of uncovering the blind spots in our thinking and behavior.

 

I was inspired by Elissa Perry and Susan Misra, from Management Assistance Group, who described this process (referenced in part 1 of the Blindspot Series, “White Supremacy Culture” by Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones) of understanding how the 13 characteristics of white supremacist culture show up in their work. This is the rigor we need to upend white supremacy and enact equity across communities. In my last blog post, I took on Individualism, Paternalism and Urgency. This month I address perfectionism, objectivity and the worship of the written word.

We would love to feature your blogs and thoughts as part of this series, so please email your contributions to deborah@leadershiplearning.org.

 

Perfectionism

It’s interesting that in more than one presentation of the 13 characteristics of white supremacy, “perfectionism” was one of the first to receive pushback. Some described their commitment to perfectionism with pride and others as a mandate for people of color who feel the need to outperform white colleagues to counter bias. I understood these comments as an important affirmation of the desire to perform at one’s best.

 

These questions sent me back for a deeper dive into the article. I think that Okun and Jones are talking more about an all too familiar culture that siphons attention away from appreciation of good efforts and achievement with a laser focus on mistakes both in delivering and receiving feedback. Who hasn’t dwelled more on the minor critique than the positive acknowledgements, (yes I admit it, I have smarted over a constructive criticism more than makes sense). Why? The dominant culture, as Okun and Jone point out, confuses doing wrong with being wrong. It’s a culture where mistakes become personal and people feel shamed, blamed or are even punished in performance reviews.

 

We become good at what we do through practice and learning, and yet, the culture of perfectionism rewards knowing, not learning. I have heard jokes made about the “know and tell” phenomenon in leadership programs when participants feel the need to outshine each other, demonstrating their knowledge and know how. Leadership development should become the place where if we perfect anything, it’s our capacity for humility and learning. A learning stance will be one of the greatest antidotes for learning about different worldviews, and sitting with discomfort that is part of reckoning honestly with the characteristics of white supremacist culture.

 

Objectivity

Perfectionism is a perfect illustration of another characteristic of white supremacy culture: objectivity. The idea itself assumes an objective standard of ‘perfect’. There is no context for perfect. To what extent is the job I do on something, e.g. a newsletter, determined by the energy, time and funds available for a resource strapped organization? And then there is the matter of my own cultural bias (largely unconscious) about what a perfect newsletter would look like, which more likely comes down to what perfect looks like for someone of my race, class, age and gender (to name a few).

Most leadership programs promote norms and competencies with some confidence that there are objectively good practices. Perhaps it would be an interesting exercise to engage with participants in unpacking these standards: whose standards are they; in what context do they make sense; whose perspectives are not included; and who holds enough power to influence norms and standards?

 

Another way that objectivity plays out is the absolute elevation of deductive rational thinking. At Creating Space, Elissa provided a framework for acknowledging and working productively with emotions such as anger, fear, sadness and joy. (You can read more in MAG’s blog.) I was struck by the rareness and power of inviting emotion as an important resource for bringing more ways of knowing and fuller truth to our work. In privileging linear logic, emotion is often dismissed as irrational thinking. Some leadership programs that are part of major social justice change efforts like, the Move to End Violence and the Domestic Workers Alliance are using somatics programs like Forward Stance developed by Norma Wong to introduce multiple ways of knowing.

 

Worship of the Written Word

Using a ‘newsletter’ example in our newsletter awkwardly drew my attention to another characteristic of white supremacy culture: ‘worship of the written word’. The irony of writing about this is not lost on me, so this will be brief. We at LLC, have polished our writing and even reached a point 7-8 years ago of deciding that we needed to publish our work in glossy brochures if we wanted to be taken seriously. We ‘document’ like crazy and quite frankly, I am not sure that these efforts to capture wisdom have always proven effective in spreading learning. I can say from personal experience, I am more likely to look at images from a meeting that evoke something stronger about what happened than a report. Documenting, in the context of supervision, evokes anxiety and is a poor proxy for conversation and learning.

 

As we lift up leadership as a relational process, it is helpful to consider when the written word is serving connection, learning and action, and when we may benefit from multiple forms of sharing and traditions. I was completely rivetted by our last webinar, simply listening to two women tell their story. One leadership program, The Culture of Health Program, has supplemented their leadership application process with video submissions. Some leadership programs are making storytelling a part of their curriculum. I am in learning mode myself and eager for more of your stories.

 

Did you miss Part One? Review it here.

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