If there is only one acceptable leadership style, i.e., the white style, then it is impossible to achieve racial equity in an organization. If the style of whites is the only leadership style that is accepted and supported, then the organization is requiring that all BIPOC people assimilate to this style. This requirement to assimilate is similar to that I have seen in many corporations where white woman, in leadership roles, have to display the white male style of leadership. If white women refuse to do so, they soon find themselves isolated, undermined and disempowered. Those who report to them simply choose to ignore or resist their direction and ideas. The resistance can be overt, in which case it is openly resisted or it can be passive. When it is passive, people simply ignore or go around the leader. You know this is the case when people go to a white man who is not their leader and ask his opinion about the validity of some idea or directive of their own woman boss.
If followers refuse to follow, there can be no leadership. The boss can rule via force, but people will only do what the leader forces them to do. One of the most effective ways to passively resist is to only do what your boss tells you to do. In the meantime, you take no action that that the boss has not directed you to do. I remember a manager of a paper mill who had a workforce of about 300 white men and 5 women office staff. This man had no patience and he did not respect his workers. He was incapable of allowing people to use their judgement and do things is a way that was not exactly how he would do it. He regularly shouted at people and dressed them down in public. People quickly learned that it was better to do nothing, rather than do something that the boss may not approve of. Soon, everyone waited for the boss to tell them every little task. It wasn’t six months before the boss got sick and had to leave. He was doing the work of 300 people because, in his drive to be in control of everything, he had to direct each one in how it was to be done. Carrying that load was too much for his body and his health. He had to leave.
In a good training program for new supervisors, the issue of empowering your staff is always a topic. Supervisors need to allow those they supervise to use their judgement in how they carry out their tasks. If someone is competent to do a task, all that is necessary is to tell them what they need to accomplish. You can then let them use their discretion about how to achieve the goal. Of course, this is a challenge for a new supervisor, who is reluctant to have someone carry out a task in a way that is different from how the supervisor would do it. The supervisor knows how to do it in a way that works, but may not have seen other ways of accomplishing the same task. Rather than risk the task being done poorly, the supervisor is tempted to instruct the worker to do the task exactly as the supervisor would do it.
This “my way or the highway” approach is very inefficient. The purpose of delegating tasks is so you don’t have to do them yourself. However, if you are going to painstakingly instruct everyone you supervise in how to do each task, you are doing most of the work yourself. It is only when someone lacks the ability or the willingness to do the task correctly that the supervisor needs to instruct them. Once they have proven that they are competent, the supervisor merely needs to identify the task and the let the worker use their discretion about how to achieve it.
This same dynamic applies to being a follower. If followers will only follow people whose leadership style is that same as the previous leaders they have had, any new leader whose style does not conform to the “approved” style will fail. I have seen this time and time again, especially with black women brought in to high level positions. In the 1990’s few large companies had black women in upper middle management or top management. Some of the companies to which we were consulting would recruit an executive -level black woman with an impressive track record, often with more experience than the whites at that level in the company. However, after six months the whispering will begin to build. You will hear things like “She is too hard on people,” or “She is not a team player,” or “She is not a fit with our culture.”
What was going on? The issue was that these black women used a leadership style that did not fit with that of white women. The black women were much more direct about using their authority. Their style was closer to that of some white men, but whites in the company were not accustomed to a woman being as direct as a man. The fact that it was a black woman, was also unprecedented. When you grow up in white-dominated settings, you very likely lack the experience of seeing blacks in leadership. While white men in these companies could be aggressive and even bullying, when a black woman was direct about her authority, the whites would not accept it. They had never experienced it before and they were not comfortable with it. Inevitably, this led to the black woman leaving before the year was up.
The requirement to assimilate to white norms and styles is one way that organizations remain inequitable even when they increase the number of BIPOC people in the organization. Numbers do not automatically equate with equity. After all, during slavery blacks vastly outnumbers the white owners of the plantation. The issue is always that of power and numbers alone do not guarantee power. We see that every day in work settings where the number of managers is so smaller than the number of workers.
I find the willingness to follow black leaders to be a critical litmus test of the intercultural competency of whites. Those whites who will follow black leadership demonstrate their conviction that the white way is not “the way,” but only “a way.” These whites have ventured beyond the white cultural framework. They have also demonstrated a willingness to trust black leaders. In doing so, they have moved beyond any cultural conditioning that says that whites need to be in control. Their behavior is proof that they are capable to relating to black co-workers in a way that accords with real equity when it comes to followership.