What pictures come to mind when you imagine the face of leadership? Do they include a myriad of people of varying backgrounds and leadership styles—or are they limited by an imagined model of familiar backgrounds? This is a question to which we, as two African-American women and former deans, have given a great deal of thought as we considered the challenges posed by leadership.
When you are the only face of color as part of institutional leadership, you become the elephant in the room representing issues of diversity and inclusion. Many are loath to address these concerns with serious and intentional institutional introspection. For example, we found that discussions of diversity in STEM education too often ended in discussion of how to increase the number of women in STEM, while not addressing the issue of participants of color.
When your leadership style is to pursue positive change that moves beyond “the way we have always done things,” you might find yourself suddenly invisible and locked out of critical discussions at the institutional level that affect your unit. We, too, often found that major financial decisions about our own units were made without consulting us. When you reject convenient “unwritten agreements” in favor of accountability, you may find your own capability questioned instead.
Yet, if the new face of leadership simply replicates the existing model, one must ask: What is lost in terms of potential? Given the current social and political climate and the obstacles it presents to individuals based on gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability, it is imperative that we take a discerning look at how leaders are chosen and asked to operate.
It is time to break the stereotypes surrounding leadership and those typically seen as leaders. That’s what prompted us to look back and unpack the realities we have experienced in our own lived experiences as deans. In doing so, we did not find simple formulas for success, but instead reflected on what occurs when the “face” of leadership does not match the expected image of a leader.
For us, however, looking back enabled us to provide lessons that guided our strategy of “leading from behind"—that is, encouraging members at all levels of the organization to collaborate in envisioning future goals. As black female leaders, we were dedicated to serving those in our units by relying on inherited strengths rooted in our shared African-American tradition.
It is time to break the stereotypes surrounding leadership.”
Altering the face of leadership calls for altering the narrative surrounding the role of leaders. Just as organizations must beware of selecting the usual faces of leadership, leaders also must avoid relying on usual formulas for “quick fixes,” which have their own sets of pitfalls and shortcomings. All too often, leaders want to make quick decisions and fixes to demonstrate decisiveness. But quick wins can be just that: fleeting. This short-sightedness often leaves no foundation upon which to build toward student, faculty, and staff inclusivity and empowerment. To what extent, then, do these quick fixes ignore long-term implications by “hacking our way to a vision"—that is, using poorly improvised strategies and workarounds—at the expense of organizational quality and sustainability?
The hierarchical structure of the educational profession, including K-12, higher education, and education-aligned business organizations, not only narrows the vision for the face of leadership, but the internal politics also shield leaders from the very accountability they tout as sacred. Unless organizations pay attention to situations in which leaders’ self-interest causes them to sacrifice their principles, any real hope of organizational change and sustainability is lost.
Too often, so-called “visionary leaders” ignore established principles and procedures, forsake accountability, or, most damaging, abandon integrity in favor of expedience. For a new narrative to emerge, education organizations must heighten the role of accountability at every level—including for leaders.
Leaders must demonstrate transparent, unwavering commitment to ethical principles and to their stated organizational mission. That does not mean leaders will never have to make sacrifices to achieve a greater return, but they can do it in such a way as to sustain the institution’s goals and vision. In other words, one can compromise without being compromised. This also can mean being willing to begin each day with the understanding that you might not be asked to return.
Imagine if there were no preconceived notions of what potential and possibility looked like. Imagine if the face of leadership could be found in the most unlikely places. For us, that is what leading from behind would look like—not as the opportunity to promote oneself but as the opportunity to imagine or even begin building a better future. In our rapidly changing world where demographics, technology, and priorities change faster than we can grasp them, educational institutions and business organizations cannot afford to retain a face of leadership that remains where it is.