Diversity has become a booming, billion-dollar business, but there is little evidence that companies’ initiatives are delivering hard results. People of color, who constitute some 40 percent of the U.S. population, remain frustratingly underrepresented in business, holding only 16 percent of Fortune 500 board seats. And only three CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are black.
While there has been some progress — the proportion of African Americans earning degrees has climbed in recent years — U.S. society is far from a meritocracy of equal access; recent years have seen a resurgence of both overt and subtle racism. Now, as ever, we need to embrace and champion policies that help to level the playing field and allow organizations to benefit from the collective knowledge of all, not just a few, people. We need to understand the reality of the black experience — which may come with lessons for other underrepresented or marginalized individuals and the organizations that seek to optimize their talents.
The abilities to take charge and motivate are essential to any leadership position, but establishing the credibility necessary to do so may come with particular challenges for black leaders. Their authority may be met with reluctance by stakeholders with implicit biases that lead them to doubt leadership qualities or that associate blackness with disadvantage, risk or lack of intelligence. They also may be constrained by what leadership approaches will be accepted by their constituents; research shows that black leaders are rated higher when they’re seen as nonthreatening. This leads some black leaders to temper their power or enthusiasm for their vocation — passion may be misinterpreted as aggression — in favor of a demonstrably friendly, gentle or more mild-mannered approach. Meanwhile, their opportunities to take charge may be limited to difficult or even crisis situations, in which chances of success may be low.
Engagement and Authenticity
Black professionals often feel limited in opportunity to express their values or bring their whole selves to work, due to unwelcoming organizational cultures. This “authenticity tension” pressures professionals to conform — notably, African Americans in the legal, health care and financial industries. According to the Gallup Institute, based on data from millions of employees, black respondents are far less engaged than their nonblack counterparts; they are less satisfied or motivated to stay with their current employers.
As a result, they are far more likely to pursue other opportunities; even black alumni of Harvard’s business and law schools experience more career plateaus and job changes than their white peers, and younger alumni express less interest in becoming senior executives at Fortune 500 corporations. This phenomenon comes with consequences to the organizations that lose high-potential black leaders — losses not just in leadership or image, but in effectiveness, company culture and the competitive advantage that comes with diverse perspectives. These considerable costs are not just social; they’re exponential.
Impact on Organizations and Societies
Despite being confronted with challenges to which their nonblack peers may not be exposed, black leaders show great resilience and adaptability as they effect change on individual, organizational and ultimately societal levels. Day-to-day behavior adds up to impact in redefining norms of leadership, actively mentoring professionals of color, serving as role models and ambassadors to both narrow cultural divides and champion diversity initiatives, and challenging inequality, even in subtle ways. Resilience and resourcefulness increase leadership effectiveness; studies specific to black women’s experiences show the strength of black leadership is indisputably tied to a robust sense of self.
Cultivating a Community
A robust community is likewise key to ensuring diversity thrives. Black leaders often develop healing connections across society, inviting citizens of all races to take up the mantle of liberating society. More cross-race relationships can strengthen the connection also across hierarchy between workers and their mangers. This can be further strengthened through increasing access to and the effectiveness of mentoring black workers, and by training managers to better deliver feedback. People learn much across difference; creating the conditions for racial and cultural dissimilarities to be acknowledged can be instrumental in important relationship-building and learning development.
The Next Chapter of Diversity Initiatives
Even while the diversity industry has thrived, many black employees remain stuck in the middle, with fewer growth opportunities or senior executive pathways. Beyond recruitment and retention, a genuinely inclusive climate will develop the wealth of talent that has plateaued in middle management. This means promoting psychological safety, cultivating a culture of inquiry around race and acknowledging the informal leadership roles black professionals take on in improving their environments, and encouraging self-expression.
We cannot continue to tacitly accept the revolving door faced by high-potential black leaders, who have been too few for far too long. Rather than seeing them as exemplars of exceptionalism who must beat almost insurmountable odds to reach the top, we must cultivate a robust pipeline of talent.
Darden Professor Laura Morgan Roberts co-authored with Anthony J. Mayo the chapter “Conclusion — Intersections of Race, Work and Leadership: Lessons in Advancing Black Leaders” in Race, Work and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience, which they edited with David A. Thomas.