Inspiring Lessons from Black Female Leaders’ Journey to the Top
It has taken no less than 48 presidential elections, but, in January 2021, the United States has sworn in its first female and first black Vice President.
All of us can draw inspiration and learning from Kamala’s leadership journey to the top and indeed from the journeys of other successful black female leaders. Starting with the Vice President, let’s examine the lessons we can take from their journeys to where they are today.
Clarity of Purpose
From the very start of her career, Kamala Harris has demonstrated clarity of purpose and a real sense of direction. She has always known the difference she wants to make to her country. Even in her earlier days as a lawyer, she was an agent of change and a trailblazer in reforming the police force.
From the moment Biden selected her as his Vice-Presidential nominee, it was clear that Kamala knew the implications this would have on her life. She knew women – and black women in particular – all over the world would be watching how she behaved in every situation. Regardless of any political views or leanings, one cannot help but admire the laser focus and clarity of intent and purpose that she has demonstrated and will undoubtedly continue to do so. This is a leadership lesson any leader would be well-served to portray.
Self-mastery starts with understanding who you are. All of who you are – warts and all. When you know who you are, your limitations, your strengths, what drives you, what frightens you, your values and so much more, it prepares you for the challenges ahead. In leadership, you are your own instrument and therefore you must become ‘master of self’. This will enable you to be self-accepting and authentic and, more importantly, it will enable you to be accepting of others for who they are and will help you relate to and connect with people from diverse backgrounds.
Most importantly, the key leadership lesson is to appreciate that you will never stop learning and evolving as a leader. Leadership is never a destination; it is a journey. Michelle Obama says this beautifully in a quote from her book: “For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.”
Stories have the power to evoke emotion and to take the listener on a journey of discovery in such a way that no other resource of learning can. It can enable the application of metaphors or experiences from one’s own life to illustrate the importance and value of a change, a product, a new way of operating – aligning an entire organisation. Maya Angelou told stories through her poetry and her writing, causing her reader and audience to connect with and embrace her message. She is famously known to have said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Dame Sharon White
Embrace change; lead change
When Sharon White was appointed the Executive Chairman at the John Lewis Waitrose Partnership in the UK, it marked a first for both parties. She is the first black woman leader at the top of the organisation and for her, it was her first venture into the retail industry. However, she rolled up her sleeves and got on with the job. In a short time, she has raised the interest of the organisation in the property market, brought a fresh perspective by leveraging her experience from other industries and garnered the support of her colleagues on the board to start a programme for change.
Izzy Obeng is the founder of Foundervine – a consultancy that focuses on start-up and scale-up acceleration programmes, with a vision and ambition to erase the inequality faced by women and young people from marginalised communities when starting a business or social enterprise. Izzy is a resounding example of the fact that the leadership attribute of contribution – which to me goes beyond simply giving back – can reside within us from the earliest stages of our careers and lives. She has positively impacted over 300 young business leaders and 2000 women and ethnic minority entrepreneurs.
The leadership lesson here is that the role of a leader is to enable the success of another human being without condition and this is an attribute to be encouraged from the earliest stages of a leader’s career.
Kanya King OBE
Kanya King OBE is the founder of the Music of Black Origin (MOBO) awards. Whilst this is an award that draws acclaim and worldwide recognition today, she launched it at a time when black music was far from mainstream in British culture. She saw every obstacle and hardship experienced in her early life and launching and growing what has become an event sought after by artists and the media alike was a challenge. She has evolved MOBO not only into a global brand but into an organisation that champions the cause and rights of black talent in the music, arts and creative industries.
Baroness Doreen Lawrence of Clarendon OBE
A mother whose son was murdered by racists in the UK when he was only 27 years old, Baroness Doreen Lawrence of Clarendon OBE carried her grief and led the fight for justice on behalf of her son with dignity. She demonstrated no ill-will toward his murderers. Even when the pain of her loss was reawakened by the news of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, she took the opportunity to lend her voice to the fight against the still ever-present racial inequality that exists in society today.
Through all of this, however, she talks about hope for the future, the importance of forgiveness and the value of unity. Rather than being consumed with a bitterness she instead allowed herself to make a difference and create change. Truly demonstrating her willingness to focus on the good that can be in every human being, she channelled her energy into the establishment of the Stephen Lawrence Day Foundation. Its purpose is to ensure that his legacy is one that delivers a better future for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. When you help one person, you help a community and when you bring hope, you enable the possibility of unity and equality.
There are so many more black female leaders from whom leadership lessons and inspiration can be drawn. There are many more that can be nurtured and whose talent can be enabled to flourish in an organisation. It lies in the hands of senior leaders and the CEOs whose influence and power can be used to accelerate change by ensuring the development, mentoring, sponsorship and allyship of the black women in their organisation.
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.