Race plays an outsized role in how people experience leadership, with White leaders widely considered to be the norm.
In spite of the salience of race in the experience of leadership, there is not much study of the Black leadership experience.
The foreword to a recently released book on race and leadership titled Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience, makes this clear:
Contemporary research has shown how the white standard for a prototypical leader limits the possibility that black men and women will be perceived as suitable for leadership positions.
In spite of the salience of race in the experience of leadership, there is not much study of the Black leadership experience. In the chapter titled, “When Black Leaders Leave: Costs and Consequences,” the authors write, “Despite our awareness of the disparities and hurdles that characterize Black leadership experiences significant gaps remain in our understanding and practice with respect to race and leadership in organizations.”
What exists is scattered across disciplines “working in parallel to lay the groundwork for theorizing from specific contexts.” This book is the first comprehensive collection of writing on the Black leadership experience.
This article highlights the key characteristics of the Black leadership experience: (1) the fact that Black leaders tend to get appointed in times of crisis, (2) that Black leaders tend to be prepared for these opportunities, (3) that their authority is overwhelmingly contested, (4) and that a core part of their work is managing the negative affect to which they are subject.
Needless to say, with White leadership as a norm inhibiting the recognition of Black excellence, Black people are underrepresented in leadership.
Black leadership has been severely underrepresented across several domains within the United States, including the workplace, education, and government. White and Black employees make up 78 percent and 12 percent of the overall labor force within the United States, respectively. However, Whites make up 84 percent of all management occupations, while only 7.5 percent of these managers are Black (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016). The Bureau of Labor Statistics also reported that this disparity becomes even greater at the executive level, where 88 percent of all CEOs are White and 3 percent are Black.
And, when Black people do make it to the top levels of leadership, they are overwhelmingly appointed in times of crisis.
In a chapter in the book titled “The Glass Cliff: African American CEOs as Crisis Leaders,” the authors define “glass cliff” as “a risky or precarious position that involves the management of organizations in crisis.” Their research finds that,
In the case of women, some research has concluded that they are preferentially selected for leadership roles for organizations in crisis because of the perception that women have the attributes to manage these situations—being sympathetic, emotionally intelligent, understanding, and intuitive—and that these same attributes may be associated with ethnic minorities. . . .An alternative rationale for the appointment of women or ethnic minorities to lead crisis situations is that the organization wants to signal that it is in change or reinvention mode.
A somewhat different perspective. . .is the desire to protect white male leaders from extraordinarily difficult leadership positions or from being the scapegoat for a failed turnaround attempt.
However, Black leaders are not generally brought in for “traditional crises,” those involving “natural disasters or catastrophic events,” or “smoldering crises, such as fraud, labor disputes, or lawsuits.” Instead, Black leaders tend to be appointed to manage strategic crises and organizational change.
In the US, the effects of the so-called racial reckoning that began in 2020—when the murder of George Floyd catapulted the Black Lives Matter racial justice movement to its apex—had an impact on Black leadership in the nonprofit sector. Suddenly, organizations that had held Black leadership at bay could no longer do so. White leaders who had held on to leadership positions for decades began to step down and boards were compelled to at least seek applicants of color for those positions. This has resulted in change at the top of some nonprofit organizations, including national ones, which are high profile and have significant influence across the sector.
Prepared to Lead
Black leaders see the crises situations under which they are appointed as hard-to-come-by leadership opportunities. Further, the authors of “The Glass Cliff” observe that “African American CEOs in our study perceived the work of managing crises and unstable situations as not an unusual assignment but rather their responsibility.” Black leaders understand that any change they help bring about for themselves or an organization has a ripple effect in the larger Black community. In the nonprofit sector, the commitment to community is often what drives the work and career of people of color.
Black leaders are not naive about the challenges they face and are prepared for it. The authors note, “their skills and previous experiences were viewed as assets for resolving a crisis situation or turning around a company. For CEOs who were internal appointments, their preparation work was on-the-job training.”
The main competency that Black leaders bring to their work as stewards of change is the ability to align internal and external realities. The authors explain,
This skill set entails the ability to have an open-system perspective that understands both a firm’s internal and external environments and develop adaptive strategies that improve the firm’s alignment and, ultimately, performance. . . .Hence, the involvement of a dynamic CEO is a necessity as the firm devises routines for strategizing for opportunities and threats because of the firm’s need for direction, visionary thinking, and balancing the competing demands of stakeholder groups.
Black leaders simply see more—a benefit of not being protected by privilege and blinded by saviorism, and of actually knowing and being part of the communities nonprofits serve. One does not become a Black leader without being able to switch between different frames and ways of being, referred to as code switching, which comes in handy when engaging the various stakeholders necessary for significant change.
Thus, Black leadership is characterized by leading under pressure and in conditions where they must “engage in frame-bending behaviors to save or reorient the firm.” Black leaders are expert interpreters.
Black leaders have an unusual capacity for alignment and vision, development and implementation of strategic functions, and the ability to mobilize resources toward goals.
The authors of “The Glass Cliff” refer to this extraordinary combination of skills as “organizational agility,” defined as “having a comprehensive and thorough knowledge of all aspects of the business and the capacity to efficiently mobilize resources and functions to accomplish a goal or solve a problem.” This is not surprising. The knowledge that people who are marginalized have to be better than the privileged in order to even get a shot is well established.
However, in spite of the unique skills and dedication that Black leaders bring to their work, they tend to have shorter tenures than their White counterparts. In “When Black Leaders Leave,” the authors write,
Previous research has shown racial differences in voluntary turnover or turnover intentions suggesting that Black employees and leaders are more likely to leave an organization than their White counterparts. Differences in experienced or perceived racial discrimination, as well as in perceptions of organizational diversity climates, may explain differences in voluntary turnover between White and Black leaders. Chrobot-Mason (2013) found that White employees were less likely to be aware of ambient racial discrimination than Black employees, and these perceptions positively predicted turnover intentions.
Thus, the racism that surrounds Black leadership contributes to shorter tenures. However, the authors find that when Black leaders leave they “used their cliff experiences as a bridge to another act in their careers. Put simply, they demonstrated resilience—the ability to bounce back from adversity, repair oneself, and, in some cases, thrive by having a growth mindset and going beyond the original level of functioning.”
Thus, Black leaders have an unusual capacity for alignment and vision, development and implementation of strategic functions, and the ability to mobilize resources toward goals. But Black leaders are forced to be resilient, and this takes a toll.
Morgan Roberts, the key editor of this volume, has been writing about the Black leadership experience for a while. In her article with Seb Murray, “Race and Leadership: The Black Experience in the Workplace,” she outlines key aspects of the Black leadership experience, which are elaborated on in the book. At the top of her list is contested authority.
It is widely known that Black leaders are constrained by the requirement to establish credibility. But, Morgan Roberts adds,
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.
This greatly impacts these leaders’ ability to lead, particularly in the crisis or deep change processes during which they are usually brought into leadership.
Another chapter in Race, Work, and Leadership titled “Psychodynamics of Black Authority—Sentience and Sellouts: Ol’ Skool Civil Rights and Woke Black Lives Matter,” begins with this sentence,
The state of Black authority relations is fraught, at the conscious and unconscious levels of examination, with attacks from across race and from within. (italics mine)
So, in addition to the pressures from White people, Black leaders must contend with challenges from people of color too, particularly other Black people. Black leaders are required to change the very practice of leadership while they are changing the organization. Black women, in particular, are challenged both across generations and gender.
The chapter outlines the psychodynamics of Black authority using group relations theory, which focuses on authority, as a central framework. The authors’ findings are based on actual interactions at the first conference on the study of Black and female authority, hosted in 2017 in San Diego and titled “On the Matter of Black Lives.”
The authors describe the exchanges as characterized by attempts by participants to deauthorize Black leaders and self-authorize in relation to those leaders, including the conference staff. The authors describe these Black leaders as being particularly at a loss for how to respond to deauthorization attempts from younger Black participants—caught between their desire to lift them up, the heightened hostility that accompanied their critiques, and Black intra-cultural norms. They describe the following interaction as characteristic of the dynamic at the conference.
In the Community Event, one group leader (a young Black male), whose group explored the role of education in Black communities and whom a Black female member described as a “king,” partly because of his stately African garb, experienced the staff the staff as betraying his group. He asserted that staff denigrated his efforts, excluded them from an initial hypothesis, and sought to silence their contributions, which echoes millennials’ lament about the boomer generation. To let us know their hurt and anger, they had enacted a piece of performance art in the staff room earlier.
The authors go on to recount an exchange that led the Black staff to ask themselves, “Were these young Black folks staging a coup?” The Black staff felt the tension between the intent to explore the challenges of Black authority, while their own authority was being contested. They also felt the tension between the hostile manner in which the critique was delivered and what the authors describe as “the African diasporic cultural value of respecting our elders and never publicly challenging them.”
They found that there is particular intra-cultural resistance to Black women’s leadership, noting “the potential resistance to Black female authority and the level of aggression being expressed.”
The conference included other people of color and whites, and the authors found patterns among these groups as well. They observe that “the Brown people ended up fighting with and wiping out each other,” while White participants exhibited a variety of behaviors. They note,
The white members took up a number of roles, all of which seemed to share an aspect of either taking cover or claiming traditional hierarchical roles: Some white members said nothing throughout the three days. Some focused on the experiences of Black people as if it weren’t OK for them to talk about their own experience. Some tried to explain to other white people how to be empathetic across the racial divide…. And finally, some came with historical white authority, “I came to see if ‘they’ [the Black staff] would mess it up.”
The authors wrote that the staff of this first conference on Black authority “felt the razor’s edge of being Black authorities in a mixed-race context and scrutinized by both Black and white people for missteps.”
They left “longing for the approval and love of Black authority.”
Black leaders must shift back and forth between attenuating their power as they lead, and having enough power to shift the organizations they inherit.
Black leaders must shift back and forth between attenuating their power as they lead, and having enough power to shift the organizations they inherit. The demands on Black leaders come from all sides, usually without adequate support. While leadership generally is “not for the faint of hearts,” this is particularly true for Black leaders, and even more so for Black women leaders.
The Forbes article, “Recognizing Workplace Challenges Faced by Black Women Leaders,” also finds additional challenges for Black women leaders. Comparing the experience of Black and White women leaders, Andie Kramer writes,
White women are stereotypically seen as communal: pleasant, caring, deferential, and concerned about others. Their leadership challenge, therefore, is to avoid being seen as so communal as to be an ineffective leader without being seen as so agentic as to be unlikable. Black women face a very different challenge. They are not stereotypically seen as communal but rather as assertive, angry, and “having an attitude.” Their challenge, therefore, is to avoid being seen as so angry or assertive as to be unlikable without being seen as so subservient and compliant as to be lacking in strength and independence.
Thus, while both white and black women face potential lose/lose double binds, black women’s double bind is far more precarious than that of white women’s. If white women are seen as too communal to lead, they will still be seen as likable, but black women lose either way: if they are seen as angry they are unlikable, if they are seen as subservient they are not respected. In other words, black women must navigate their lose/lose dilemma in such a way that they get it just right or they will be seen as neither leaders nor likable.
Morgan Robert observes that Black leaders engage less than their white peers, as they seek to manage the affective load of these expectations.
It takes a lot to navigate these challenges. So, it is not surprising that Morgan Roberts also finds that Black women leaders, in particular, tend to have a “robust sense of self.”
In a recent conversation with a Black woman nonprofit consultant, she shared, “All but one of my clients right now are Black women-led institutions where the Black leader is being challenged by the staff and the board, who have failed to show up for her.”
She observes that the ways that board and staff are undermining Black women leaders is different. The board says, “We hired her. She’s so fabulous. She brings so much. We really want to follow her leadership, so we are not going to put any obstacles in her way.”
But this “get out of the way” approach often belies an underlying desire to see her fail.
One way this shows up in this consultant’s work is board members not showing up to board meetings. One of the leaders she works with has not had a quorum to pass the budget, which has impeded her ability to fundraise.
The other way boards are undermining Black women’s leadership is by not performing executive reviews, so the executive has to move forward making bold decisions without feedback from the board. The consultant I spoke with said for one client that has gone on for three years.
When the consultant spoke to the board about this, one member summed up the board’s feelings this way: “She went in a different direction than I was envisioning. I wasn’t there, so I can’t say anything about it. I don’t know if I can support her new vision.”
The consultant concluded, “So they said they wanted to follow the leadership, but they slept on it. They are more comfortable with the topics of leadership that don’t require anything of them. The board’s inclination is to do as little as possible.”
The consultant, echoing the major finding above, goes on to say, “The way the staff is undermining Black women’s leadership is questioning leadership’s authority in every dimension. It doesn’t matter what the reason is—‘It’s too hierarchical,’ ‘There’s not a clear enough way for me to move up in the organization,’ ‘This person is using the tools of white supremacy.’”
She notes that the staff is using Tema Okun’s “White Supremacy Culture” as a guide, “Even in media companies, people are challenging the written word.”
The consultant reflects,
I feel like I have been here before. This is the moment in these periodic cycles of racial justice reckonings that we have every 20 to 30 years, where everybody in the social sector decides that activism looks like “work to rule,” or lowest permissible performance. In nonunionized institutions it’s quiet quitting, where people are showing up, collecting the paycheck, but declining to do the work.
Right now people want to look radical. It’s fashionable. The language that is being used is “workers need more power,” but many are not able to articulate what is the power they have, how is it currently being used, what do workers want to do with the additional power.
And the first thing that happens when they get the power they seek is they describe it as overwork. In my experience, most people asking for greater power, when given it, do not have a plan for using it meaningfully and are unable to sustain that commitment in addition to performing their job.
I’m sure I’m not the only one seeing this.
No, she is not. A recent Mother Jones article titled, “How the Mainstream Movement Against Gender-Based Violence Fails Black Workers and Survivors,” speaks to the spread of the pattern, even in spaces devoted to women and where Black women are often overrepresented as clients and White people are overrepresented in leadership:
Yet advocates I spoke with say that, inside movement workplaces, the rhetoric about race often does not match reality. “Everybody loves to quote Audre Lorde,” says Michelle Osborne, former race and social justice manager at the YWCA Seattle. “But somehow, nobody wants an Audre Lorde to be their executive director.”
In Osborne’s view, the solution to the problem has long been obvious—hiring, promoting, and resourcing advocates of color, and not subjecting them to greater scrutiny than their white counterparts.
Being Pro-Black includes honoring Black leadership.
Over her many decades studying Black leadership, Morgan Roberts concludes that,
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.
But we can do better. If the nonprofit sector cannot support the leadership of Black people, especially Black women, who can?
Being Pro-Black includes honoring Black leadership.
 Ella L.J. Edmondson Bell and Stella M. Nkomo, “Foreword,” in Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience, eds. Laura Morgan Roberts, Anthony J. Mayo, and David A. Thomas (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2019), xi-xvii.
 Kecia Thomas, Aspen J. Robinson, Laura Provolt, and B. Lindsay Brown, “When Black Leaders Leave: Costs and Consequences,” in Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience, eds. Laura Morgan Roberts, Anthony J. Mayo, and David A. Thomas (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2019), 341-57.
 Laura Morgan Roberts, Anthony J. Mayo, and Serenity Lee, “Why a Volume on Race, Work, and Leadership?” in Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience, eds. Laura Morgan Roberts, Anthony J. Mayo, and David A. Thomas (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2019), 19.
 However, there is a book on Black women’s leadership experience based on a small sample, which is often the case with the study of Black leadership. See Patricia S. Parker, Race, Gender, and Leadership: Re-Envisioning Organizational Leadership From the Perspectives of African American Women Executives (New York: Psychology Press, 2015).
 Thomas, “When Black Leaders Leave: Costs and Consequences,” 341-42.
 Lynn Perry Wooten, and Erika Hayes James, “The Glass Cliff: African American CEOs as Crisis Leaders,” in Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience, eds. Laura Morgan Roberts, Anthony J. Mayo, and David A. Thomas (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2019), 323-39.
 Ibid., 324.
 Ibid., 330.
 Ibid., 324.
 Ibid., 332.
 Ibid., 331.
 Ibid., 330-31.
 Ibid., 332.
 Ibid., 333.
 Thomas, “When Black Leaders Leave: Costs and Consequences,” 342.
 Ibid., 342.
 Perry Wooten, “The Glass Cliff: African American CEOs as Crisis Leaders,” 334.
 Laura Morgan Roberts and Seb Murray, “Race and Leadership: The Black Experience in the Workplace,” UVA Darden Ideas to Action, 2019, https://ideas.darden.virginia.edu/race-and-leadership.
 Diane Forbes Berthoud, Flora Taylor, and Zachary Green, “Psychodynamics of Black Authority—Sentience and Sellouts: Ol’ Skool Civil Rights and Woke Black Lives Matter,” in Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience, eds. Laura Morgan Roberts, Anthony J. Mayo, and David A. Thomas (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2019), 291-307.
 See also Jean-Marie Gaëtane, Vicki A. Williams, and Sheila. L. Sherman, “Black Women’s Leadership Experiences: Examining the Intersectionality of Race and Gender,” Advances in Developing Human Resources, no. 11 (2009): 562-66.
 Forbes Berthoud, “Psychodynamics of Black Authority,” 298.
 Ibid., 299.
 Ibid., 301.
 Ibid., 302.
 Ibid., 303.
 Perry Wooten, “The Glass Cliff: African American CEOs as Crisis Leaders,” 336.
 Andie Kramer, “Recognizing Workplace Challenges Faced by Black Women Leaders,” Forbes, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/andiekramer/2020/01/07/recognizing-workplace-challenges-faced-by-black-women-leaders/?sh=180a731753e3.
 Morgan Roberts and Murray, “Race and Leadership,” https://ideas.darden.virginia.edu/race-and-leadership.
 Madison Pauly, “How the Mainstream Movement Against Gender-Based Violence Fails Black Workers and Survivors,” Mother Jones, 2022, https://www.motherjones.com/crime-justice/2022/03/racism-domestic-violence-sexual-assault-movement-anti-me-too-black/.
 Morgan Roberts and Murray, “Race and Leadership,” https://ideas.darden.virginia.edu/race-and-leadership.