Re-thinking Leadership: Deborah Meehan on Racial Inequalities and Individualism

By Sofia Trigo ’20

 Deborah Meehan gives presentation during the Kravis De-Roulet annual conference. 
Deborah Meehan gives presentation during the Kravis De-Roulet annual conference. 

Deborah Meehan is the founder and executive director of the Leadership Learning Community where she works with a network of over 9,000 people who fund, run and study leadership development and share a commitment to improving leadership development programs both nationally and internationally. In her presentation at the Kravis Leadership Institute’s 25th Annual Kravis-de Roulet Conference, “What in our Current Approaches to Leadership Development Contributes to or Undermines Greater Social and Racial Equity?”, Ms. Meehan explored how individualism and concepts of meritocracy permeate the ways we think about leadership and inequality. She also examined the influence race and racial tensions can have on leadership and leadership development programs. After her discussion, I was able to sit down with Ms. Meehan and continue discussing leadership and its current relationship to individualism and race.

After wrapping our discussion, I was struck by just how complicated it is to re-think leadership and effectively change how companies and organizations conduct leadership development programs. Ms. Meehan’s point that leadership exists within a context is something I feel we often dismiss as we so quickly praise the ‘corporate heroic model’ or the individual leader. I began to wonder how much this societal emphasis on the individual leader has influenced students here at Claremont McKenna College conceptualize leadership among their peers. I began, too, to realize how important, yet, under acknowledged, team work and team building is to effective leadership. In both her presentation and interview, Ms. Meehan reminded me of the individual progress and societal growth re-thinking leadership can inspire and encourage. Below are excerpts from our discussion together.

Q: Could you talk a little more about what you mentioned in your talk regarding ‘rethinking leadership with a race conscious lens’?

Deborah Meehan (DM): By race conscious lens we mean once you’ve started to think about your leadership development programing there are so many ways that you will need to equip people and so many ways in which you’ll need to run your program if you want to contribute to greater social equity. It starts even with recruitment and all the barriers that exist in participation. How you think creatively about those barriers is critical. Whether you’re able to provide some kind of special equity fund for people who have children or transportation issues, or, whether you’re willing to, in the design of your program, to challenge philanthropy about who is getting money and why. Then, in the actual design of your program, what kind of curriculum exists? I had a poll that I didn’t use during my talk that discusses leadership development curriculum and what should be included. For example, do you have a curriculum that explains the racialization of opportunity structures in this country? Does it help individuals to understand this systemic problem and provide them with tools and an understanding of how best to disrupt it? Are you teaching people how to talk about race? Are you willing to be straight-on about white privilege? In the design of the program, are you privileging experts that are white and outside of the lived experience that is most rich when it comes to ‘change work’? How do you co-create programming with the participants to tap their expertise? In leadership development, a big question is: how can you create a learning community so that everybody can learn together from the actions they take and then how do you build sustainable networks from that.

Q: You also discussed how leadership is often thought of as super individualistic, particularly in America. How do you think we should go about changing this conception of leadership?

DM: Right, we like to call that individualism in leadership the “corporate heroic model.” Changing this requires a cultural shift. That’s why; we say making that one meta-shift right now would be huge for us in the future. We have to get people to start expanding what they understand leadership to be. In fact, I don’t agree with the paradigm ‘leadership and followership’ that was the theme last time I was here for a conference. I think it encourages people to abdicate leadership roles. Would you say that anybody who was on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement was a follower? My feeling is everyone participating was enacting leadership and Martin Luther King Jr. played an amazing role in terms of being a representative and the voice for many that were mobilized to lead. There were students, legal organizations, janitor’s unions, the southern Christian leadership conference – there was enormous collaboration and negotiation that was happening behind the scenes. Yet, because we are so attached to the individual and leadership, we fail to talk more broadly about the massive mobilization of leadership in the Civil Rights movement.

Q: Could you elaborate on how you see teamwork fitting in with our individual-framed concept of leadership?

DM: I mentioned in my talk the example of a woman who exceeded all goals set out for her by encouraging teamwork and working with a team, and yet, simply because she promoted the team rather than her own leadership, she was not acknowledged for her success and was told she wasn’t being ‘leader-like’. This is another example of that cultural shift we need to begin making. I even think that in companies, people are recognizing you need teams but we set up performance measures that undermine teams and teamwork. People do not get evaluated as a team, they get evaluated as individuals. This standard encourages a kind of competition where individuals aren’t driven towards teamwork but rather to outshine everybody else. There are so many current structures in place that are undermining re-thinking and enacting leadership as more inclusive and diverse process.

Q: What do you mean by leadership existing within a context?

DM: I can actually use an example from this KLI event! I was sitting yesterday with a woman in one of the small group conversations who is a student here. She was talking about how she got involved in this program that was looking to challenge the fact that arts on campus were so male identified. Then, in doing that work, women of color responded saying, yeah, but you know what, women of color are even less represented, and this communication and conversation grew from there. Well that’s her leadership and it’s happening in a specific context. It’s not as if she is going into a leadership program, getting skills and is now suddenly a leader. Leadership is about what we are moved by, who we can connect with, and how we can make it happen together. Leadership programs, however, aren’t structured to help individuals work more effectively with other people in the contexts in which they lead. We have to start re-structuring leadership programs to acknowledge context and to bring leadership supports to groups of people where they are already engaged in change work if we are to do a better job of supporting social and racial equity.