A few weeks ago an MBA classmate who heads up leadership development programs at a prestigious Ivy-league university reached out to some alums to ask for our personal reflections on leadership and privilege. As I started to mull over her questions, one of the first thoughts that occurred to me was that, by any objective standard, I am walking privilege.
However of course as an individual, with my own story and background, I too - as the article she attached to her ask pointed out - can still suffer hugely from the use and abuse of privilege and power. The fact that as a member of a certain class of people, with a certain background, I have generalized privilege in no way excludes the fact that as an individual I can feel very un-privileged. And that those feelings at the individual level can be intensely painful, even traumatic.
In making the decision to share my story and my reflections on this topic with a group of Ivy League MBA students (privilege anyone?), I decided to hell with it, I would just be brave and put it out there - without regard to the range of responses it may evoke. And I am doing the same here, on this much larger, even more public platform.
As you read this, some of you may feel a profound sense of discomfort, and would really rather I just don’t talk about these things. Others of you may think “Oh well, she clearly couldn’t hack it in the corporate world. She’s just justifying her failure to make herself feel better.” Still others of you may think “Oh my gosh, she’s so brave, she’s so inspiring. I wish I could be like her.” And finally some of you may even respond with “Wow, I really connect with her authenticity - her struggles and my struggles are so related.”
Hold these in mind as your read what follows. I’ll come back to them at the end and let you reflect where you fall on that continuum and what it may mean for you.
One more prefatory comment before I dive in. Because of my privilege it is sometimes hard for me to feel OK with acknowledging and sharing my pain and my experiences. Compared to so many others I “have it good”. But pain is pain, as Brené Brown reminds us; comparison to minimize the reality of another person’s pain is just another form of privilege and power. As a result of my experiences I am, I hope, much more empathetically connected with the millions who don’t have the objective privileges I do of race, education and culture. I have not walked in their shoes - because I am me. But I have felt the soul-crushing defeat and deep sense of personal failure that the use of privilege and power to “put me in my place” evoked in me.
So who am I? And what is my privilege?
I am female. South African. Of English descent so far as I know, with some Irish and Welsh mixed in. I am white, 46 years old, heterosexual, and non-physically disabled. I am married, mother to a nearly 8-year old boy, and an alum of the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. I have no military experience, but have lived in conflict zones. I was brought up Christian, but identify now as Unitarian. I was born in the United States to South African parents and grew up in apartheid South Africa. I served as a diplomat for the first democratic South African government for 8 years (firstly under Nelson Mandela, then Thabo Mbeki), and spent 6 of those years in the Middle East. I have lived in the United States since 2001.
I am now a disabled middle-class professional. My new profession is as a workplace bulllying/ toxic environment coach. I have interned on Wall Street and worked for a big 4 consulting firm. Over the course of my 25-year career I’ve been a diplomat, consultant, project and program manager, banker, shoes and clothing manufacturer, coach and entrepreneur. I’ve worked in government, finance, real-estate, hospitality, energy efficiency and the utility sector, and (incongruously) children’s footwear and apparel.
But perhaps most importantly of all, I grew up in apartheid South Africa. And thus, in America, I have ever felt myself to be considered an “outsider” - with experiences unfathomable to most (so my American friends tell me). Where I grew up and my initial work experiences also gave me a difference in worldview that, if truth be told, I never really even considered as significant at all until I came to live and work here.
One of my very earliest experiences at the Johnson School was someone correcting my use of the word “orientate”. “It’s orient,” they said. “There’s no such thing as ‘orientate’,” they added. There is - look it up - but that’s not the point. What is the point was that I was to be corrected. They were right, I was wrong and if I wanted to live and work in America the message was clear: speak American, adopt American ways.
Think about that for a minute and what it says about that person.
And perhaps about this country.
Because of my heritage - of which I am proud - I was never willing, and indeed am still not willing, to blithely assimilate; to become only American and drop my American pre-history. Anyway, I can’t - the accent is unshakeable.
As a leader then, because of my background, experiences and education I was, in America, perhaps more tolerant of difference than many of my American classmates. Conversely - and this is important - I was also far less tolerant of prejudice. I was also definitely less tolerant of being required to “fit in” and do things “the American way.” Quite simply I had no belief that “our way, the American way” was the “right way.”
Indeed, if I am to be honest (and I chose that with all its attendant personal discomfort), I conveyed arrogance, superiority even, because of my diverse and broad international experience. It wasn’t intentional. Mostly I wasn’t even aware of it. But it was enough to get Americans’ backs up. Because no-one, least of all white American males at an Ivy League B-school program, and later white American males in a position of authority over me, wants to be “looked down upon.” And I just wasn’t self-aware enough back then to self-monitor for that.
Added to this, because I grew up in a police and authoritarian state, I am profoundly skeptical of all forms of power and authority: the police, the government, the military. And yes, that even extends to bosses and the “higher ups’.
It is perfectly obvious, stated this way, that that would put me on a collision course with corporate America. It did. And the consequential fall-out was catastrophic to my health...and my job.
“Privilege grants the cultural authority [the power] to make judgements about others and to have those judgements stick” writes Allan Johnson in Privilege, Power and Difference.
In my case I was judged to be:
And on and on. For another two hours...
Did I see myself this way? Of course not! But, not knowing if what I believed about myself was true or not, I decided to ask some other people with whom I had worked at this company where I had gone wrong. The responses I received couldn’t have been more different.
So who was I? What was true?
Here’s the thing. It really didn’t matter. What mattered was who had the power to make it true. And clearly, that wasn’t me as I was the lower ranked, not-really-American, female, non-engineer in a very hierarchical, male- and engineer-dominated utility company.
They had me corned.
By labeling me as they had, they effectively blocked any attempt I might make to defend myself and challenge their version of the truth. If I did that I just proved their point: I was argumentative and unable to take feedback. They were right and I was wrong. I did attempt a very mild push-back. The response was quick and blistering. In short it was complete character assassination.
The consequences for me of this feedback were pretty devastating. I fell apart - quite literally. In the good old days it would have been called a nervous breakdown. And break-down I did. Because the experience re-triggered my PTSD. Re-triggered it so badly I had to go out on short-term disability. I spent two months on the couch. On which I was either crying, sleeping or numbing myself on mindless TV. Finally, I was (predictably) terminated. Long-term disability was denied. I couldn’t even claim Unemployment for a long time - as I was in no state to look for work, let alone actually work. (Oh yes, and along the way from going out on STD and finally being terminated, I sustained a serious physical injury from falling off our deck, my mother passed away, my younger brain-damaged brother fell apart because of our mother’s death, and my older brother and father both collapsed from the stress and strain. It was a real picnic. Not.)
From a $150,000 annual income (I’ve always been the main breadwinner), we are down to a $20,000 household income. Our savings are nearly exhausted. We receive food stamps, Medicaid and child support. My medical team has made it very clear: return to my occupation at the risk of my life.
And I haven’t even written about the worst of it, or all of it.
So, what does my story evoke in you? And what might that say about how you view the world and your place in it. How you view yourself?
Am I weak? Am I a failure? Am I “less than” any of you who are reading this?
Only you can answer that.
Friends admire me for me strength, my resilience, my grit, my determination. But the fact that I have those is no accident. They are, largely, a product of my privilege. They are not some innate personality characteristic. I have the mental, emotional, and intellectual resources - due to my education, upbringing, race, culture and work experiences - to find a way to argue and fight for myself. To plan a new future. To retrain as a coach and become self-employed. If I were a poorly educated single mother-of-color in a developing country, would this be the case?
My experience has taught me, more than anything else, that leadership is never about the exercise of authority or power over someone. Leadership is about compassionately, and with a motivating principle of loving kindness, seeking to lift up everyone we can to be their best selves. To hold them accountable for their actions from that basis, not from a basis of blaming and shaming them for what they’re not. Leadership is about focusing on possibility, not scarcity - and yet that is so much what we tend to do. We measure people against metrics, not being aware that the very metrics themselves are usually rooted in privilege, in the perpetuation of the status quo, and a system of winners and losers.
These questions go to the heart of living, loving and leading. Wrestling with them is the work of our lives, so that we can become the best selves we can be. It is a brave, vulnerable and authentic act to look at these questions. It is profoundly uncomfortable. It is also an act of true leadership.
Leadership and authority are vastly different things. It is vital that leaders question authority, and resist its attempts to normalize and perpetuate the status quo. Leadership is about seeing all human beings as inherently whole, inherently worthy and doing the best they can given the tools and resources that they have.
And if we think they could be doing better, then leadership is about helping them to gain new tools and resources. That may mean letting them go so that they can pursue opportunities that are more aligned with where there are at. But is never about putting them down, or blaming or shaming or judging them for what they’re not.
The more authority and power are used, the more it is to be questioned and resisted. It is an act of profound bravery and courage - and therefore of leadership - to be willing to ask the hard questions of those in authority, of those with power over us. The personal price for doing so may be very high - as I well know. Whether or not that price is worth paying is a question only you can answer.
For myself, it was not a price I sought to pay. And yes, at the time, the price felt way too high. Way, way, way, way too high.
But now I don’t.
Because I would have paid an even higher price if I had capitulated to their definition of me, and in so doing I had continued to avoid wrestling with the question of who I really was. It would have been the price of my soul.
Feeling worthy, just as we are, is not in the least the same thing as feeling you deserve what you have, or that your are entitled to it. A sense of worthiness is routed in humility, gratitude and an awareness of how much of what you have is not due to anything you have done to earn it.
Perhaps the worst abuse of privilege is when privilege aligns with a position of power and authority over others and a feeling of entitlement to that position. The narrative then becomes that they deserve this position of power and authority and have earned it by their own hard work. That can come together in a really toxic brew, because now the privilege/power combination is completely self-justified and self-righteous. People with this outlook (and, let’s face it, they are mostly, but by no means exclusively, white males) are completely blind to - or simply don’t care about (they are effectively the same thing) - the effect of the use of their power and privilege on others. Because in this position they truly think they are better than the other person.
For this is what privilege and power seek to steal from us: our dignity, our worth, our agency, our humanity.
And as a leader I refuse to let that happen to me. And I also refuse to stand by and let it happen to others. So that is why I am now a workplace bullying coach, helping professionals of all ages and genders stop feeling disempowered and move forward in their lives and careers with unshakeable confidence.
There are many ways to fight this fight. But ultimately it boils down to how we each, as individuals, choose to show and be seen everyday. And how we choose to see others: as whole and worthy, or as flawed and needing to prove themselves. I choose the former. I choose empathy. I choose compassion.
Leadership is about owning our own privilege and prejudices. Defensiveness is a natural response to us being called on our privilege. But it never helpful. And it blinds us to the work we need to do on ourselves, for ourselves. There is only one sure way that I know to breakthrough the disconnection of privilege - and that’s empathy.
The stories we tell ourselves about our identity, about who we are, where we are from, and what we deserve and are entitled to are so powerful. And yet we are, most of us, blind to them. I certainly was. These stories are like the glasses that you are born with - and which you don’t even know are there - because they’ve been part of your ever since you can remember.
I’ll end with a quote by Brené Brown:
I’ve learned enough about privilege to know that we are at our most dangerous when we think we’ve learned everything we need to know about it. That’s when you stop paying attention to injustice. And make no mistake, not paying attention...is the definition of privilege.
Sue Mann - Coach
Reflections on how we reclaim and sustain our worthiness in the face of falls and challenges.