Integrity Is The Only Container Capable of Responsibly Holding The Power of Leadership
What our world most needs right now is leaders with integrity, and that begins with you and me.
We can all agree that 2020 was a year that brought with it unexpected amounts of grief, loss, pain and division, to the point that many public figures are calling for 2021 to be a "Year of Healing." I could not agree more, healing is in order. I started prioritizing healing for myself and in my work early in the Spring of 2019, after the crushing personal realization of the harm of white supremacy and poor leadership models in most workplaces and across our society. It is becoming apparent to me that most of the crises that we are facing, locally and globally, could possibly boil down to poor and toxic leadership. However, seeking to heal wounds without first stopping the harm perpetrated by toxic leaders could be counter-productive.
In my work as a racial equity and culture strategist, I have begun to reflect on the fact that my work is not solely meant to address racial injustice, but rather it is meant to strengthen the leadership capabilities at all levels of an organization, and to begin to transform our understanding of ‘leadership’ for the benefit of all. I could not possibly capture in one article everything that makes for an effective, transformational, visionary and culturally-competent leader, but I can begin to provide areas for self-reflection for those who are in leadership roles or aspire to lead others. It is worth noting here that I believe that while not everyone is called into a vocation of leadership, everyone can lead from where they are - no titles necessary! Because humans are social animals, our behaviors influence and impact others and our awareness of that fact is where integrity comes in.
Our crisis of leadership extends far and wide, and we need to update and upgrade our understanding of what it means to lead.
Merriam Webster defines INTEGRITY in three ways:
1: firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values: INCORRUPTIBILITY
2: an unimpaired condition: SOUNDNESS
3: the quality or state of being complete or undivided: COMPLETENESS
I like to define integrity as consistency between my words and actions, or what I like to call “being my word.” Being my word allows me to communicate to others how I can be counted on. For organizations, I consider integrity to be the alignment between their professed values and their practices and policies. After last summer's uprisings, many organizations claimed that #BlackLivesMatter, however, few have actually followed through in ensuring that they do the work necessary to create the conditions for Black, Indigenous, and professionals of color to grow and thrive.
The following three reflections are most vivid in my imagination today, as to how we can upgrade our understanding of leadership:
1. Only Integrity Can Transform The “Face of Leadership." I would venture to say that until recently, if we asked someone to picture what a leader looks like, the picture on their minds would likely not be that of someone who looks like me: an Afro-Indigenous immigrant woman who grew up near poverty. And yes, they would be right. Nothing about how I look or where I come from determines my leadership capabilities: My integrity, preparation, life experiences, proximity to the problems I am working to solve, vision for a different future rooted in love, and wisdom passed down from my family and ancestors who have survived systems of domination for generations are what qualify me to lead in the areas that I do.
There is a fine line between inclusion and tokenization, and we must be clear that while more Black and Brown faces are needed in leadership at every level in our society, this should not just be an exercise to add color to organizational brochures. Instead we have to create the opportunity for more of us to step into positions of leadership because our work and experiences have prepared us for this moment of much needed shift. A shift away from the kind of dominant culture leading our societies towards inequality, poverty, disease, and even death, and towards building multi-racial, multi-cultural, inclusive and accessible environments that center and elevate the previously silenced voices that will point us ALL towards life and shared health and prosperity.
Leaders are people with the power and influence to engage others in creating change or delivering results. And we all know that with great power, comes great responsibility. The number of current crises that we are living through is indicative of that power, and of the fact that not everyone currently leading is equipped to lead with integrity and through an equity lens. In our predatory, capitalistic, dominant culture, profits and outcomes are consistently prioritized over people, and power, control, and forced assimilation are consistently prioritized over truth and diversity. In the middle of a global pandemic and deep ideological divides, we are paying the high price of toxic leadership. And this is not limited to our government leaders and corporate America, we see this manifested in every sphere of our society. However, in a society obsessed with forced assimilation into cookie-cutter models for leadership, we know that often those who ‘look the part’ or ‘fit the bill’ are more likely to ascend into positions of leadership than those who are actually qualified to nurture relationships and motivate teams to deliver on their goals.
Leaders who do not hold themselves to a high standard of integrity cause harm to their teams and beyond, devolving the organizational culture into toxicity, lack of trust, and exclusion. This is the the kind of environment where tough subjects that merit dialogue are instead discussed over email, in order to have a written audit trail. This is the type of environment where assimilation to the dominant culture is rewarded despite its toxicity, and where truth-telling and differing perspectives are penalized. Toxic work cultures are detrimental to everyone, and most often those outside the dominant culture pay the highest price. Creating a culture of equity, where everyone can find a sense of belonging, means modeling leading with responsibility and integrity, and that is constantly looking for opportunities to shift power (rather than hoard power) in order to bring about balance and progress.
2. Awareness of our own cognitive dissonance is a must. Cognitive dissonance is the term used to describe the mental conflict that occurs when a person’s behaviors and beliefs do not align or when someone holds two beliefs that contradict one another. In 2003, author bell hooks wrote in Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope: “In a culture of domination almost everyone engages in behaviors that contradict their beliefs and values. This is why some sociologists and psychologists are writing about the reality that in our nation individuals lie more and more about all manner of things large and small. This lying often leads to forms of denial wherein individuals are unable to distinguish between fantasy and fact, between wishful dreaming and reality.”
Though written almost two decades ago, this is more true today than ever. However, those of us who choose to live and lead in reality know that truth is not a moving goalpost adjustable to meet our whims and desires. It is important to understand the prevalence and impact of lies in our workplaces and society at large; and it's important to understand their particular impact on those who are not part of the dominant culture. Lies have been an everyday part of our society since the foundation of our country. There is no greater cognitive dissonance than founding documents that declare that “all men are created equal” and that call for “liberty and justice for all” but that were not transparent about the fact that when they said “all”, it meant to only include white land-owning men.
However, it’s not only the founders of our country who embody such cognitive dissonance. As Ms. hooks intimates, in systems of dominance we are all forced into positions that compromise our values. Becoming aware of our own cognitive dissonances, being transparent about them, and extending grace to ourselves and others is necessary to create environments of inclusion and belonging.
As an example, I can share that I struggle with what is the right amount of money to save for my retirement, when there are so many people in need right at this moment. I struggle with my commitment to bridge-building, when there are so many people who traffic in falsehoods, question my very humanity, and who would rather burn bridges and build walls. I struggle with modeling humility, when I live in a world where my accomplishments are consistently undermined or unappreciated by the dominant culture and by those who seek to preserve the status quo. I struggle with finding the right language to motivate and influence, when what is needed is truth-telling that causes discomfort, so that we can grow to become more inclusive and culturally competent leaders. We all could use time to reflect on our own dissonances and how they impact us and others, so that we can make conscious choices that align with our values.
3. We must be transparent about our values and hold ourselves accountable. Knowing what our own values are and communicating those to our colleagues is key to accountable leadership. I have observed a large number of leaders who profess to hold values that they are not willing to uphold for themselves. The most common way in which busy professionals do not live into their values usually has to do with their own wellbeing. I have met countless leaders that claim to be working towards equity and justice, but who choose to prioritize their work over their own health and ignore the symptoms of stress on their bodies.
Mistreating themselves in this way sends a message to their teams that results are more important than health, and that if they would like to ascend into a leadership role, they should follow suit. This is harmful for everyone involved and reinforces the harmful message (rooted in our history of enslavement) that our value as human beings is tied to what which we can produce. Leaders who are not mindful of their own humanity and limits create toxic environments through their unconscious stress and fatigue. Leaders who do not hold themselves accountable put their teams in the uncomfortable and livelihood-threatening position of having to hold them accountable to the personal or organizational values that they claim to live by, which is massively unfair.
As an independent consultant committed to healing and justice, I have to be constantly weighing the pros and cons of the number of hours that I work, how I care for my mind, body, and spirit, and how I care for and nourish myself and others. In our society rooted in violence it is important to begin to dismantle the violence from within. The violence of negative self-talk, the violence of working more than our bodies can handle, the violence of not stopping to rest and just be. And as we inflict this violence upon ourselves, we inflict it on others as well. I do not know many leaders who are operating from place of stress and fatigue who are also effective communicators and providing the support and nurturing that their teams require for success. Holding ourselves accountable means taking daily stock of our intentions, our approaches, the example we model for others, and above all HOW we relate to one another.
Can you imagine what could be possible if we each took on holding ourselves accountable to living our values and being our word? What if we are the leaders we have been waiting for? The time is NOW, for those of us called to lead, to step fully and unapologetically into our power to create change rooted in love and integrity, and become the new face of leadership our world needs.
Itzbeth Menjívar is a racial equity and culture strategist and the Founder and Chief Bridge-Builder of BridgePeople LLC.