The widening of racial and economic inequities illuminated by the pandemic and incidents of police brutality have compelled funders to explicitly invest in diversity, equity, and inclusivity strategies. Funders have an emerging interest in investing in leadership development programs to train people to lead in a way that contributes to inclusivity and equity. Yet, there are studies and practitioners of social transformational change that continue to remind us that to achieve racial equity is more than changing hearts and minds or individual behaviors. Although necessary, it is not sufficient to disrupt structural racism.

In our April 2019 newsletter, the article Further Developing Leaders of Color: A Systems Approach to Equity discussed why changing behaviors at the individual level only will not achieve equity and social justice in a leader’s organization or for the communities they serve. Often, many leadership development programs operate under the assumption that one person can change an organization’s culture and practices if the ‘right’ individual is invested in and their capacity and skills are strengthened. This prevailing assumption reflects the dominant cultural values that focus on individualism as the ‘unit of change’ to strengthen organizations and improve their ability to serve communities. The article also emphasized how the single leader approach as an intervention for racial equity and social justice “does not address the structural and systemic barriers that constrain an individual’s power or reflect the fact that collaborative approaches are needed to dismantle structural racism and advance equity.” [1] Community Science has evaluated several leadership development programs and found three critical elements that facilitate a leaders’ willingness to take action for racial equity and social justice: 1) deepened empathy to strengthen interpersonal relationships; 2) systems thinking and ability to identify the levers of change that leaders can activate to make a difference; and, 3) skills to act on analysis of inequities.

Deepened empathy is essential to strongly feel and recognize the unfairness and suffering of others. This relational connection propels leaders forward to take action, and requires dedicated time to develop. Leaders need many opportunities to practice sharing and listening to stories with people from different cultural backgrounds without a defensive posture. Programs can facilitate these types of interactions by modeling what safety can look like and describing specific behaviors in how leaders respectfully interact with one another. This can reduce leaders’ anxiety of ‘making a mistake’ or fear of ‘being misunderstood’ for having a different perspective. Fostering authentic engagement also provides leaders with vocabulary to explicitly describe what is creating inequities and where–in their organizations, communities, or their lived experiences. Overall, programs use deepened empathy as a mechanism to build a sense of community among leaders to move away from their sense of isolation toward a connected community. With deepened empathy, leaders can see the strive and struggle of people outside themselves, which then leads them to see how people are treated unfairly and feel ownership in demanding justice for communities to which they belong.

Also, some leaders can often feel stuck or unsure of where to start. We have found that programs with a focus on the skill of system-level thinking to help leaders find where they can influence levers to address inequities. Similar to defining how to create safety, programs need to develop leaders’ understanding of how racism and norms and values of dominant culture  are built into all organizations and institutions, whether it is conscious or unconscious. Organizations can get ‘stuck’ spending a lot of resources and time on proving racism exists (e.g. employee asked to prove if a comment made by a manager is racist or not)  and changing individuals’ hearts and minds and never having the chance to ask—what is unfair, unjust, and for whom and why?—as a step towards identifying root cause solutions to advance equity.

System-level thinking can only identify levers; leaders still need the willingness and intrinsic motivational drive by deepened empathy, as well as the skills to take actions that reduce inequities in their organizations’ policies, practices, or services. Leaders draw from their deepened empathy to understand each other’s struggles and their communities’ experiences. They then work to understand the systems that contributed to the unfairness and injustices that each other’s communities experienced. This helps to push leaders into actionable steps to support each other and publically challenge assumptions that perpetuate racism by asking–who is included or excluded, served or underserved, resourced or exploited by the organization’s policies, practice, or culture? More leadership programs are considering the role of power; they build leaders’ skills to navigate power dynamics and conflict. Navigating power is an action skill needed to interrupt dominant culture and to center people of color and non-dominant voices by considering-who defines what progress looks like for whom and how to assess progress? As leaders create equity strategies and solutions, it is critical to examine how power is shared or shifted and for whom. And, to understand to what extent are opportunities improved for the people most impacted by racism and other inequities compared to the majority.

We have found that deepened empathy is equally as important as having a systems analysis and the skills to act on the analysis. Deepened empathy a necessary component that can be overlooked or reduced to a single moment, rather than a relational-action that propels leaders to take action. Programs that break down terms like—equity, inclusivity, and power– into concrete behaviors and daily steps help leaders identify how and with whom to take action. Deepened empathy is one way to move leaders into their abilities to take action for racial and social justice. Leadership development programs can meet this moment’s demand for racial equity by normalizing systems-based interventions, equity analysis, and deepened empathy to address the underlying causes of structural racism and inequities as a required acumen of leaders.

[1] Community Science (2019) Key Considerations for Design and Evaluation of Leadership Development Programs with a Racial Equity and Social Justice Lens, Gaithersburg, MD: Kien Lee and Brandon Coffee-Borden.