Gatekeeping Leadership

Here we go...

The organization I worked for before quitting had a Leadership Model. And the theme of this model was “Lead from Any Chair”. The idea was that anyone at any level in the organization was capable of being a leader. It’s a fantastic theme, encouraging those in any type of position to take active roles in improving their organization.

If only it had been true in practice.

We’ve all heard the expression “if you’re going to talk the talk, you need to walk the walk”. What I found interesting in my ten years at this same organization, was that management continuously got better at talking the talk – and yet the walk never changed.

Managers became very good at talking about respecting staff and valuing diversity. And yet their actions still led to employees feeling ignored, invalidated, and defeated.

Shortly after I left my job, I had two very similar conversations with two different co-workers. Both of them are women who care deeply about their jobs, and took a leap of faith in making themselves vulnerable and going to management to talk about a concerning problem within their respective units. And both of them, in different cities, in different departments, got the exact same response.

“No one else has said anything,” replied both managers. And that was the end of both conversations.

Some may say this is just a coincidence. But I don’t think it is.

Almost there...

It can feel very empowering the first time an organization admits that it has a diversity problem. When there’s been a history of denial and gaslighting, it can feel as though someone just flipped on the lights in a dark room. Finally! We’re finally being honest!

But the heartbreaking thing is that it soon becomes clear, in so many cases, that admitting there is an issue is just one more way to punt the ball further down the field. So if questions arise, management can point to their Diversity Committee, or their Inclusion Officer, and say, “See? We’re working on it! We promise!”

And many of those in management may genuinely believe that they are doing good in this regard. But I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Good intentions mean nothing without action.

In my former training department, there are two different leadership programs. One, the one I co-ran, is open to employees of any classification, from office support to management. The other is only open to employees of high level salary ranges. So high, in fact, that some managers do not qualify, because they don’t make enough.

And in this “lead from any chair” organization, I’ll let you guess which program is the one that gets the highest budget and most attention. I’ll let you guess which one opens the most doors.

I’ll also let you guess which program has the higher number of participants of color.

Now there will be people who will attempt justify all this. They’ll talk about succession planning and budgets. They’ll have pat answers for everything. But I don’t care. Because you can’t justify the impact. You can’t justify who gets left out and who gets let in.


I could go on with more examples, but I think everyone has plenty of examples of this in their own workplace. And we know that talking alone doesn’t break down barriers.

So what does?

To those who have power in their organization, here’s what I think:

You need to listen. When someone comes to tell you something, even if it bothers you or makes you feel defensive, you should never dismiss it. Because if you haven’t heard it from anyone else, it doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. It just means that people may not feel safe enough to tell you it’s a problem. This goes double for a man being approached by a female subordinate or a white person being approached by an employee of color. They are reaching through a big power differential to try and talk to you.

You need to accept that inequity is institutional, and you can’t just trust things to balance themselves out. Because they won’t. Acknowledging that you haven’t been taking action and need to do more is not an admission of personal failing. It’s something to be proud of. It’s a sign of leadership.

And you need to act. Stop just saying you care about problems. Show, don’t tell. Whether it’s hiring or putting together a workgroup or finding a panel of speakers for a presentation, you need to be actively looking to find and promote diversity. (Good grief, don’t be one of those people who puts together an all male panel on women’s empowerment). 

For those who don’t have power in their organization, this can be a lot harder. Just finding someone to listen can be an uphill battle. Seeing the mediocre being promoted can feel incredibly defeating. And I wish I had an easy answer.

But I will say that your voice matters. In fact, it more than matters, it’s critical to making things better.

I loved training leaders in my program. I loved that we had receptionists and janitors in conversation with caseworkers and managers. I loved all the voices that came into the room. I loved that when we asked people to share their passions, they made themselves vulnerable and spoke their truths, and often touched their co-workers’ hearts in unexpected ways.

It’s not always easy to see the impact you’re making in the moment. But it’s there.

Sunday Reflection – Introduction

In the Leadership program I used to facilitate, we always started each session the same way. We would provide our participants with a question, or a quote, or an idea. And we would ask them to journal for seven minutes.

Now, seven minutes is not very long. Ask someone to wait for a bus for seven minutes, or tell them that the movie they’re seeing will start in seven minutes, and people are fine.

Tell people to journal for seven minutes – they will struggle.

Not everyone, of course. Some people came into the training as journal writers. But a large number of people, after two or three minutes of writing, would start to fidget. They ‘d be looking around, sighing, and clearly desperate to pick up their cell phone (something we did not allow in our sessions).

And it’s not hard to understand why. When we’re scrambling to keep up with things at work and at home, sitting in solitude and thinking feels like a luxury.

But every session, we still asked them to do the same thing. And we did it for a reason. Because if they wanted to be leaders, they needed to self-reflect. And self-reflection takes practice.

Sometimes we asked them to journal after an activity or a presentation, to allow them time to reflect on what they learned. I’ll never forgot the time one of our participants raised her hand after journaling. “I really didn’t get the purpose of the activity,” she said. “But then when I started writing, suddenly it made sense. You got me!”

In some ways, this blog was inspired by self-reflection, as I started writing to delve into my workplace experiences that led me to quitting. And I want to continue that journey, while also hopefully encouraging others to take the time to do some reflection of their own.

So I’ve picked Sunday as a good day for doing some thinking. Every week I’ll post an idea or a  question or a quote. And I’ll be doing some thinking. And I hope some of you do too.

Amplifying Voices – Introduction

In 2015, author Corinne Duyvis coined the hashtag #ownvoices as a convenient shorthand term to refer to stories written about members of a marginalized community, by authors who belong to that same community.

This has become a valuable tool in the fiction world. Of course authors can write about any topics they wish, but publishing opportunities have not been equal for all communities, and there is a difference between a book about an African-American woman written by an African-American woman, versus one written by a white male. We can imagine what it’s like to live in someone else’s skin, but we won’t ever truly know it. Encouraging work by #ownvoices authors gives us all opportunity to engage with individual experience at a much deeper level.

With this blog, I plan to talk a great deal about privilege and bias, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it is impossible to be a true leader without acknowledging and combating the existence and influence of inequities.

However, as a white woman, I need to acknowledge my own privilege and never want to make the mistake of speaking for any communities to which I don’t belong.

Amplifying Voices will be a regular feature on this blog, and my attempt to bring the intent of #ownvoices to the leadership conversation. There is so much to learn from leaders of every race, religion, sexuality, gender identity, and background, and it’s not a complete conversation without everyone.

Amplifying Voices – Mellody Hobson: Color Blind or Color Brave?

Mellody Hobson is a highly skilled and experienced business leader. Most recently she was appointed as vice chair at Starbucks, but her entire career has been amazing and I encourage you to read more about her accomplishments.

I like Mellody’s business-focused take on why colorblindness is not a valid strategy for dealing with issues of race, and why diversity is a strength for companies. But what I particularly love about her Ted Talk is her mention of becoming comfortable with discomfort. So many of our choices in life are made to avoid discomfort – and yet in doing so, we rob ourselves of some truly life-changing moments.

Why start a blog?

I quit my job this year. I had been with the same public service organization for almost ten years, in a variety of positions. I’d been promoted multiple times, and was most recently in a position doing work I really enjoyed. But the culture and management of the organization had gotten to a point where my health, both mental and physical, was being negatively affected to a degree I could no longer ignore.

Me after a typical day of work.

I didn’t think of leaving as a defiant act, just as a necessary one. And yet, as I talked to a number of colleagues and co-workers, I heard the same thing again and again – “Wow, I wish I could do that”. Not one person questioned my choice to leave a stable job with decent benefits without another position lined up.

Reflection is deeply important to me. I like to believe that we can grow from all experiences, including the deeply negative. This blog is my attempt to process my experiences, reflect on what I’ve learned, dig into other perspectives, and hopefully come to a greater understanding of what happened, and how best to move forward.

I want to use this opportunity to not only reflect on workplace trends that I feel are both short-sighted and dangerous, but also to brainstorm and problem-solve for how to make things better.

I do not pretend to have all the answers. I hope any readers would question me if I did. But I think there is space to have some honest talk about leadership, management, and the way power is allocated.

There are many things we may not be able to impact, but we won’t know until we try, right?

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