Members on Issues: Executive Presence and Equity Leaders: Contradictory or Complementary?

chao.jpgChao Yang is a catalyst of change and a leader with intense focus on impact. She believes strongly in building connection,collaboration and ownership within teams. She is currently the Chair of Emerging Professionals in Philanthropy (EPIP) Minnesota Chapter, where she is working locally and nationally on alleviating inequities in community. Chao is especially passionate about maximizing cross-sector efforts that result in solutions that have a wide-ranging positive impact on society, and finds work the most meaningful when her community involvement brings tangible, long-lasting impact that helps others capitalize on opportunities and succeed. She is interested diverse executive sourcing, strategic communications, and innovation with an equity and community first framework.

Executive Presence and Equity Leaders: Contradictory or Complementary?

When most people think of executive presence, they immediately default to a vision of a C-Suite Executive. What exactly is executive presence, and do equity leaders who work in community spaces across sectors also benefit from having it? In Suzanne Bate’s book, All the Leader You Can Be, she outlines the 5 facets of executive presence:

  1. Authenticity – These leaders are genuine, open and true to themselves. They are forthright and sincere. They aren’t afraid to reveal who they are and to state what matters to them. In the vernacular, they’re the real deal, and because of that, people instinctively trust them.
  2. Integrity – Leaders with integrity have strong morals and values and live up to them consistently. They keep their promises and strive to fulfill their own high standards.
  3. Concern – Leaders care about the people they lead. They provide opportunities for their employees to develop professionally and encourage them to grow. They work to create a positive corporate culture that supports their employees’ efforts.
  4. Restraint – Restrained leaders are calm. They stay unruffled no matter what happens around them. Becoming emotional or acting impulsively isn’t part of their psychological makeup. They remain reasonable and treat others with consideration.
  5. Humility – Humble leaders are in touch with their own weaknesses as well as their strengths. They recognize the value inherent in all human beings. They are respectful and open to others, particularly their subordinates.

If we compare these facets of executive presence to attributes of equity leaders, there are contradictory expectations between these same desirable attributes depending whether they are being used to contribute to an organization’s bottom line versus when these characteristics are used to challenge discriminatory policies, procedures, and unfair practices that contribute to institutional racism.

Most equity leaders have deeply held beliefs regarding social justice in all facets of community-economic, health, public policy, etc. arenas, and they are very much open and true to themselves. They are raw and open, however; they are often viewed from a dominant culture perspective as being overly sensitive to social issues, combative, and difficult to work with due to their deeply held beliefs that resist being integrated into a system that does not serve people of color, indigenous, and underserved populations equitably. Due to dominant organizational cultures and expected behaviors in most institutions across sectors, most equity leaders are asking one another in closed spaces the question, “What’s the percentage of yourself that you leave at the door?”.

This leads to the second facet of executive presence, integrity. If equity leaders are challenging the status quo and attempting to create transformative change that truly levels the playing field for all people regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, then it would be nearly impossible compromise those beliefs by leaving a percentage of their authentic self at the door. Because even if they attempt to do this, these very same leaders due to their deeply held beliefs will agonize over the cost of acceptance and business.

It is because equity leaders have a very deep understanding of the impact they are making to community-to people in their backyards that they champion for equity across different causes both in the workplace, in community, and in their different roles. Their concern for people is what makes them amazing leaders in the first place.

Equity leaders are oftentimes disrupters, resisters, and resilient even in the face of rejection and opposition. They usually are the best practitioners of restraint. However, when equity leaders are subject to discrimination, micro-aggressions, and gaslighting because of challenging the status quo, it’s difficult for any person or human being not to be psychologically traumatized when the trauma is inflicted on an ongoing basis. This is impossible to avoid especially if the equity leader is from underrepresented or marginalized group.

Last of all, equity leaders in their journey to level the playing field firmly believe in the inherent value of people. This is essentially what motivates the social justice movement is the ingrained belief that everyone deserves the opportunity thrive and survive despite job titles, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

Can equity leaders truly live out the facets of executive presence and thrive? Well, maybe, and it depends. Organizational culture plays a large role.

As we examine our systems and organizations and hope to transform them into more equitable environments or as organizations attempt to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion, it’s also important to view how the organization views executive presence by asking:

  • What are different ways we can assess leadership qualities that are more purpose, values and mission driven?
  • How are we rewarding or penalizing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) champions who challenge the way are currently working?
  • Does my organization have a Chief Culture Officer (CCO)? Is that something to consider if we are serious about DEI efforts?
  • Are we leaning too heavily on a couple of key or token representatives of DEI?
  • Are the paradigm shifts that need to take place to bring about a more equitable workplace disbursing beyond one siloed area that specializes in DEI?




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