Leaders, check your privileges!

Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/@vincefleming

Leadership is a fertile topic for inflated metaphors, for hero’s stories, for dramatic and compelling phrases and incredible experiences.

All of that is true and there’s a lot of nitty-gritty-not-so-pretty aspects of what a leader is, what he does and what he experiences.

Today I want to talk about the latter side of the coin, and to call out (some of) the privileges of leadership so that we may become more aware towards how the words and actions of someone in a position of power can impact others who are not.

  1. Money: I mean, let’s go straight to the gut. As a leader you have access to a compensation and benefits package higher than most of the other employees. Consider that when you talk to a junior or mid level employee about how “mission matters, but money don’t”. Be inspirational, no arguing on that, but just make sure you do not talk about how pursuing salary increases is not the key to happiness to a person who has barely enough to pay the monthly bills. It’s hurtful and embarrassing. Also when you discourage a change in the benefits & compensation package for the sake of profits (which is normal and part of the job to *some* extent), make sure you don’t hurt the same people at the lower end of the paying scale. That is what HR can help you avoid — but make sure to listen and consult with.
  2. Growth: If I had a penny for any situation where the people who have reached the top of the “corporate ladder” or at least the elusive peaks of it were annoyed by people pushing and insisting to be team leads or managers… I’d probably have about a 100 dollars :) It is normal for people to pursue growth and job titles — actually it’s also a sign that the company you are in is stimulating and people look enthusiastically at management and leadership roles. In other words, you are doing something right — congratulations! At the same time you are responsible for the nitty-gritty-not-so-pretty how to’s of the growth. So make sure you update job descriptions. Make sure you can very clearly articulate the growth path at least in your department. Make sure you can clearly explain to all people in your department, at all times, what they need to do to get promoted. Make sure you are as objective as possible in your performance management decisions. And listen to and support people’s desires to grow.
  3. Gender and power: Yes, we are discussing gender as well. How could we not? This is one of the trickiest dynamics to consider and work around and I have seen examples of leaders who have been breathtakingly attentive with it and supportive and I have seen what we can confidently call jerks about it. Where should we start? Through the nature of my role I have spent most of my career working with leaders aka working with teams who were almost exclusively made of men. Men decided where we ate at lunch in teambuildings or on-site trainings and when would we leave the restaurant to go to the hotel or go out for drinks etc. I have eaten in far more shadier places than I would have liked or wanted. I could have voiced a different opinion (and most of the times I did) but the result would be the same — the majority decided and the majority of management teams are, most of the times, men. As I grew in age, in experience and courage, I started doing my own thing and not worry about joining in the group for another bar hop or extend a dinner way past *my* bedtime. Another thing you need to consider as a male leader is what is your idea of a fun joke and how it affects others. I personally do not find enjoyment sitting in and fake laughing while we pass around misogynist jokes. To flip the spectrum I have seen a leader who I was working with to promote senior managers and who deliberately said “I do not care to understand why female leaders had lower salaries in the past, and I do not care that the standard is that everyone gets the same percentage increase. The women in my team will not be paid lower than the men.” And to flip the perspective, I have also noticed dynamics where female and extroverted and confident leaders tend to completely take the stage and leave no room for anyone else to speak — and especially difficult for introvert and respectful male leaders to break through the chatter and get to voice an opinion during a meeting.
  4. Personality: This is basic “life”-ing and at the same time so easy to forget, but really, truly not everyone is like you. And thank God for that! If we all were extroverts the world would be a loud and completely annoying place. If we all were introverts there probably wouldn’t be anyone who would intentionally reach out to Aliens and create partnerships (🙂). If everyone was interested in conferences and public speaking, who would be focused on policies and processes and system updates and resource management? Intentionally seek diversity of personality and contributions in your team, and make a deliberate effort to be inclusive — because you *will* have a bias against people who are different compared to you.
  5. Culture and heritage. This is the one that preoccupies me the most lately, as I realize how little effort I have made to understand the cultures of people I worked with and their value systems. There are cultures who are inherently loud and proud, assertive and competitive, while others deeply value respect for authority, humbleness and collaboration over competition. There are cultures where success is measured by how many hours you spend at the office and the size of your bank account, and others where success is measured by your ability to successfully manage family life and integrate work into it. There are cultures where people live to work, and cultures where people work to live. Taking time to learn about this is a must — especially as we work in global, multicultural contexts where no one must feel canceled or left out.

This list of leadership privileges to consider is just a beginning, and by far not an exhaustive one.

I have a goal to continue to educate myself and others on this topic, even if it might be uncomfortable to hold the mirror in front of us and see our own blind spots and mistakes. But without this intentional pursuit of true leadership development — which, again, is not only about the pink bombastic side of storytelling and inspirational leadership and so on but also about seeing where we completely fail to the task at hand and where we resist improvement — is a must. Without it, our influence as leaders will either slowly turn to be more and more negative, or eventually fade away.

Leadership Coach & HR Leader