THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Kamala Harris is the first woman and the first person of colour to be inaugurated as Vice President of the United States. It has taken 48 Presidential elections to achieve this. Harris is a pioneer and her achievement will go down in history as a milestone in the fight for racial and gender equality. Her name will never be forgotten.
But, in the fight for gender and racial equality, it’s essential women like Kamala Harris are celebrated not just because they’re pioneers, but for their talent. Acknowledging the skills, determination and leadership it has taken for Kamala Harris to achieve this, as well as addressing the obstacles she has had to overcome, will be key to inspiring the next generation of black female leaders and to tackling the inherent racism and sexism that black women face in their journeys to the top. So what are the qualities that got her here, how can we learn from them and what can we do to ensure more black women reach the top?
Kamala Harris is a woman who, right from the beginning of her career, has demonstrated a clarity of purpose and direction. She knew the difference she wanted to make to her country. She was a champion and agent of change and made her mark by tackling one of the institutions at the core of the nation: the police force. She set about reforming it and, in doing so, she leveraged her background in the law and experience of law enforcement.
Her purposeful and intentional support of Joe Biden began with her outspoken and resounding endorsement of him and went on to passionately raising funds for the campaign to his selection of her as his vice presidential nominee. All the way through, it was clear that Kamala knew the enormity of the implications if she was selected. The nation and indeed the world, every woman and girl, indeed every black woman and girl would be watching to see how she would behave in every single situation. Her life would no longer be her own. She has become a role model for all women and most certainly for black women.
When you know who you are, your limitations, your strengths, what drives you, what frightens you, it prepares you for the challenges ahead. Leadership is relationship - you cannot be a leader unless you are relating to another person or even to yourself. When you know yourself, you become increasingly aware of how you are experienced by others near and far in different situations. You know the buttons you’ve pressed, the emotions you’ve stirred, positively and negatively, and the level of support you have or are likely to have for your vision and goals.
Kamala Harris’s evident self-mastery has enabled her to leverage her strengths and the traits of her heritage successfully. In order to be a great leader or indeed a continuously better leader, the ‘instrument’ you must master is yourself. Kamala’s attempt in the first instance to run for the Democratic presidential candidate nomination, then about turn and choose instead to stand by Biden, demonstrated an awareness of self far beyond the ordinary. Looking from the outside in, it presented a woman who chose instead to play to her strengths, to leverage her influence in other ways, enhancing her opportunities to learn, without minimising her impact. This will no doubt put her in good stead for whatever may come in the future.
To engender followership you must have not only the ability to demonstrate compassion and empathy, you must also have first class communication skills, regardless of the context and audience. Her ability to communicate in a way that evokes emotion and enables listeners to relate to her as a human being, whilst getting the intention behind her message across, has resulted in her acquisition of followers across all genders and races, at home and around the world. In her communication, she makes use of her ethnicity and the fact that she is of mixed race. She powerfully employed the use of storytelling by calling on memories of her childhood experiences and how they influence her life decisions today, for instance. In her body language she maintains an open and welcoming stance; her smile full of warmth.
We need to acknowledge the still evident racism and discrimination that exists in society and the lack of gender and ethnic diversity at the top of organisations and institutions. This is particularly the case where black women leaders are concerned. We must not stop here – now is the time to break down the barriers black women face in reaching the top. If this opportunity is seized and definitive and decisive action is taken, then we can look forwards with optimism to a time when the appointment of black women into high office in government, in communities and in organisations, will be the norm. We must drive effective and sustainable change. So how can we do this?
Allyship is defined in Wikipedia as the ‘practice of emphasizing social justice, inclusion, and human rights by members of an ingroup, to advance the interests of an oppressed or marginalized outgroup. Allyship is part of the anti-oppression or anti-racist conversation, which puts into use social justice theories and ideals.’ Quite simply, it means the proactive support and advocacy of another. It is one thing to champion your own cause, it is another and very powerful thing to have your cause championed by a person who on the surface has absolutely nothing to gain.
It calls on you as a white male or female to speak up for the black woman in your organisation and call out behaviours, practices and decisions that work against her inclusion and belonging, even if you may perceive it as risk. It means being willing to examine your own biases with honesty, do something about them and educate yourself. It means being the type of person who is willing to listen to the lived experiences of another with compassion and a genuine interest and willingness to do something about it. This is what being human is about.
Challenge the status quo in your organisation or institution and demand a review of all the people processes that currently exist. This means a review of the methods attracting employees and candidates for opportunities, all the way through to the induction of new employees or members, assessment of performance, promotion and development to the methods of selection for termination and redundancy. These processes and the way in which they have been deployed keep the ceiling black women come up against in place. Challenging the status quo also means being willing to roll up your sleeves and participate in the review and, when the findings point to a need for change, it means being committed to helping to put changes in place, introducing the relevant measurement criteria, celebrating your progress and continually looking for ways to improve.
Research shows that black women in organisations are highly educated and have ambition and yet do not have the opportunity to realise it. If you are in a position to proactively nominate and sponsorship the black woman executive of potential in your organisation do so. It’s especially beneficial for her to participate in a leadership programme designed exclusively for black women – providing a great opportunity to learn with other black women of potential. External leadership programmes have always been applauded for the vicarious benefits they present, from alumni networks to learning transfer across organisations. Nominating the black woman in your organisation for a programme designed specifically for her, provides a powerful, safe and secure network of successful black women into whom she can lean for support, advice and role models. When a programme like this also includes organisational mentors and sponsors from inside her own organisation it signals a belief in her contribution and communicates to her that she belongs. This is especially important, as the black woman in an organisation is less likely to say that they have a mentor or a sponsor, (as highlighted in this article by philanthropy news digest).
Yetunde Hofmann is a Board level executive leadership coach and mentor, global change, inclusion and diversity expert and founder of SOLARIS - a pioneering new leadership development programme for black women. Find out more at www.solarisleadership.com