The pursuit of authentic leadership is important for everyone, but it is an altogether unique challenge for ethnic minority leaders. Leaders who may already feel suppressed by the weight of being in the minority. Indeed, comfort in being one’s true self, sharing information about home and personal life and establishing social connections are proven to be easier within one’s own group than they are across a demographic boundary – in the case of this discussion, racial background.
I have met many people of colour who, through no fault of their own, fail to comprehend that the impact they have as a leader and their chance of progression is likely affected by their colleagues’ natural feelings of closeness towards them. We are all familiar with the systemic inequality that exists so deeply for ethnic minorities within the workplace, so on the surface finding one’s true voice may seem insignificant. The evidence, my own lived experience, and the experiences of my colleagues, however, is there to tell us otherwise.
Not only is authenticity fundamental to influential leadership, but study after study has also highlighted the direct link between leaders who can relate to their colleagues and how successful a business is. In fact, one study has also shown that employees’ perception of authentic leadership serves as the strongest predictor of job satisfaction and it can have a positive impact on work-related attitudes and happiness.
It is important to note that finding an authentic voice is not about changing who you are as an individual. Rather, it is about gaining an increased understanding of how contexts can constrain expressions of authenticity for you as a minority ethnic professional so you can build the skills to flex personal style and energy to counter this.
Let us remember, what works for the majority does not always apply in the same way to the minority, not because minority leaders lead differently, but because being a minority leader challenges many of the entrenched assumptions of what leadership looks like.
Here I share some actionable steps you can take to find your voice as an ethnic minority leader.
- Believe in your worth: The colour of your skin does not determine your worth. No doubt you will have heard this many times before, but it is an important drum to bang. Let’s also acknowledge that when racism forms the backdrop of your everyday life, it can be hard to believe this is not the truth. Remember, where you come from and the experiences you have had, have helped form every part of who you are.
- Remain true to yourself: Your power lies in your difference, and you should not shrink or change to fit the mould of the majority. Instead, look to take up space respectfully. Acknowledging what you believe to be your difference and sharing your experiences can help to kindle bonds.
- Give your intuition a voice: If the voice you’re using doesn’t feel right for you, it’s probably not. I am naturally an intuitive leader guided by an innate sense of being and I find this to be one of my most powerful lights. It is no one’s place to tell you that this sense is invalid. Successful leadership requires a whole-brained approach, acting on facts will only take you so far.
- Make your voice heard: Lean into moments of discomfort and get comfortable speaking up, especially if it does not come naturally to you. You may not always have an ally in the room, but if you are asked for your opinion, embrace the opportunity to express yourself with impact. Don’t forget that taking a leap of faith when things get difficult can inspire and influence.
- Prioritise personal development: Understand your capabilities, leverage your experience, and say yes to stretch assignments that allow you to grow and develop new skills. This is not a commitment to perfection, but rather an acknowledgement that investing in oneself will ultimately help your team and the business thrive. If stretch assignments are not offered, put your hand up and ask for them.
- Attend a targeted race and ethnicity leadership programme: Traditional leadership programmes seldom speak to the lived experience of those in the minority. Content insights, activities and practical recommendations often overlook the role that race plays in shaping perceptions during interpersonal interactions and of leadership. Psychological safety and permission to talk freely and openly about experiences of inequality and discrimination are essential.
You may have never had the opportunity to discuss your past experiences in a safe space with like-minded peers. You may find it enriching and reassuring to learn alongside other talented ethnic minority professionals who have similar aspirations and who face similar obstacles to you. Do not underestimate how beneficial this no filter approach could be for your personal growth.
Unpacking your past experiences, identifying your unique strengths, and grappling with the dynamics of leading as a minority in a majority context is all-important in the process of finding your authentic voice. Have you found yours yet?