“When I dare to be powerful — to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
– Audre Lorde, Second Sex Conference, New York. 1979
In our work with clients, we focus on the conversations and behaviors that move us closer to alignment, to generate whatever we agree is mutually valuable. We steer clients away from conversations and behaviors that take organizations away from what we believe matters most. We assert that to find that space of alignment, which we call the Intersection, we must have an authentic interest in and appreciation for one another’s purposes, concerns, and circumstances – that which matters most, concerns us most and constitutes the real conditions of our individual lives. These are noble pursuits, and yet they exist inside of the paradox of inclusion.
The paradox of inclusion, and the leadership inclusion demands, exists in the tension between the very human need to belong and the very human need to survive. This tension has come into stark relief more than once as I’ve worked to balance preserving that which makes organizations great with what must fundamentally change, to ensure that all people within those organizations have an equal opportunity to thrive. That tension doesn’t just live as a condition of work inside of organizations, but as a condition inside the leadership of those who find themselves ‘the first, the few [or] the only,’ in the words of author Deepa Purushothaman. It’s a daunting experience, and sometimes a downright frightening one.
This month at Conversant, we are asked to consider what about leadership worries or scares us. As I sat with this question, it wasn’t the traditional aspects of people management, work-life balance or meeting high expectations that came to mind. I found that again and again, I return to the fear of being misunderstood and possibly exhausted or worse inside of organizations that haven’t been able to operationalize their commitment to inclusion, belonging and equity. These fears aren’t mine alone – they are part of a larger context of women of color inside of organizations often being joyfully embraced and then insufficiently positioned for success. In business, the practice of recruiting women and people of color to high profile opportunities, during times of crisis, or with insurmountable challenges is known as the ‘glass cliff’ phenomenon.
Since 2020, after a doubling down in the United States of a conversation regarding social justice and racial equity, companies have seen their leadership demographics mirror the broader commitment to those efforts. With waning attention paid, fewer dollars dedicated to efforts, and existential threat of internal equity efforts have lived alongside the departure of many of the folks who initially came to those organizations to that work in the first place. At the highest levels of leadership, there are currently only two Black women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and specific to equity work inside of organizations, the Chief Equity Officer role is on a decline after a boom in the space to support organizations’ efforts to augment their policies and practices. There are any number of reasons that these leaders leave, but I am more curious about what makes it possible to stay, despite the structural or cultural factors and nature of complex leadership challenges.
One of the writers I often look to when making sense of my intersectional experience, first and foremost as a human with a desire to make a meaningful contribution in life, is Audre Lorde. Lorde was a writer, activist and philosopher who wrote extensively on the importance of difference, its value in bridging divides and the necessity of all of us to confront and ultimately accept its presence as a feature of life with one another. Over the course of her career, Lorde wrote repeatedly about fear. The quote above is just one expression of her exploration of fear. She turns fear over in her mind as a personal and political provocation. Lorde treated fear as a confront, an indication that there was something internal to contend with, and still to address externally.
This quote, delivered as part of a speech delivered at a conference in 1979 represents her engagement with fear as a platform upon which to hold the tension of wanting to maintain a certain peace of mind, but always, always needing to be honest about what her lived experience was. I can’t purport to know what every other woman of color’s experience is inside of organizations, but I can appreciate the desire to belong with the need to disrupt ‘business as usual’ in service of that belonging. And I accept the invitation to speak, despite the fear. Not just for the people whose voices frequently go unheard, but for me.