DURING the pandemic, one of us became a bit of a Star Trek fan. Minal was never really into science fiction, but she ran out of shows to watch and found herself intrigued when Stacey Abrams, who is famously a Trekkie, said that Voyager was her favorite Star Trek show, even though Deep Space Nine is considered the political allegory. Still, Abrams cited Voyager, and we can’t help thinking it was because of Captain Janeway. In Voyager, women finally had a realistic representation of female leadership aboard a Star Trek vessel, one that was determined and decisive but also empathic and willing to listen.
Still, Janeway doesn’t seem like such a big deal until Minal had finished watching all the Voyager episodes and decided to dip into Star Trek: The Next Generation (referred to as TNG among Trekkies, we’re told). The first season is almost shocking in how Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard carries himself. He’s brash and bossy and vents his frustration by shouting at children, particularly poor Wesley. In Picard, the recent revival of the Star Trek franchise, it’s clear the character evolves since season one of TNG. But we don’t think Captain Janeway would need to evolve as much if they revived her character. In fact, she’s almost a prescient paragon of what good leadership looks like in the 21st century.
For decades, outdated models of Western leadership have prevailed, primarily centering White culture and male energy: someone who’s certain of himself, who has all the answers, who takes up space, shows no weakness, and knows how to win. But in a world turned upside down — by a pandemic, by climate change, by a reckoning with systemic injustice — what does winning even look like now?
Leaders have been getting an inkling that things are changing, that the old tools aren’t working. They have tried to lead their staff through these changes by emphasizing we are more alike than different, that anyone who works hard can succeed here, and have been befuddled when staff respond with outrage or anger.
So what exactly is going on?
The definition and expectations of leadership have changed. Talented staff no longer want a general leading them into battle; they want a coach nurturing the best out of each of them. They want someone with the courage to be vulnerable and say, “I don’t know, but I’m committed to figuring it out with you.”
They want an equitable leader. Someone who sees the system. Someone who is not tolerant of difference but rather so comfortable with it that they are willing to embrace it and make it a feature, not a bug of the workplace. They want someone who understands that great organizations encourage everyone to play to their strengths instead of insecurely asking everyone to fit into a mold of the “ideal” employee.
However, our brains are wired to feel threatened by difference. In The Power Manual, Cyndi Suarez writes:
The concept of difference is central to interactions in relationships of inequality. Humans have used differences to value, divide, and structure society—as with race, gender, class, age, and sexuality. One’s relationship to difference impacts one’s interactions, either reinforcing these structures of value or interrupting them. The supremacist approach to power offers two options for dealing with difference: ignore it or view it as cause for separation. A liberatory approach views differences as strengths and entertains interdependence as an option.
How does one begin to nurture a liberatory approach to power?
By examining your relationship to difference. Not surface-level differences—like a disagreement in approach or process to employ, the kind of difference that challenges your worldviews, your beliefs, and values. Leaders must navigate and embrace the latter to create inclusive and equitable environments where everyone thrives. And as Jessica has discovered through her work coaching leaders, this requires a higher degree of emotional intelligence, specifically, emotional self-awareness and the ability to self-regulate in the moment. The good news is you can build these muscles with intentional and consistent practice.
Normalizing discomfort for yourself and your organization is critical. Why? Because experiencing deep differences often equates to deep discomfort, which triggers your brain’s fight or flight mechanism. In this mode, critical reasoning goes offline. You react out of habit verse skillfully responding from a place of choice. The work of the equable leader is to thoughtfully respond in the face of discomfort and to demonstrate openness for deep difference.
Equitable leaders are also skilled at seeing systems and understanding interdependence. While valuing difference is the first step in the process of developing “system sight,” leaders can hone their vision by understanding their own relationship to the systems they are in. The tool Minal uses to facilitate this understanding with leaders is the Group Identity Wheel, developed by DEI practitioners and executive coaches Sukari Pinnock-Fitts and Amber Mayes. The wheel helps individuals understand themselves in all their complexity and positions their identity in relation to systems and power. It also allows them to understand both their marginalization and their privilege. This is vital to being an engaged and equitable leader. If a leader is interested in being an ally to people without the same level of privilege, then they must ask themselves, “How can I lift up the voices that may be struggling to be heard over mine in this organization?”
This can be uncomfortable, which is why emotional intelligence is critical, particularly the stamina to do difficult things. It can be tempting to duck one’s head in the sand and simply believe that the outside world will not intrude upon your company. But ignoring reality makes you a poor role model for the courageous conversations we need to have if we really want to design a more equitable world where everyone thrives.
* * *Minal Bopaiah is the author of Equity: How to Design Organizations Where Everyone Thrives. She is the founder of Brevity & Wit, a strategy + design firm that combines human-centered design, behavior change science and the principles of inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility to help organizations transform themselves and the world. Bopaiah has written for the Stanford Social Innovation Review and The Hill and has been a featured guest on numerous podcasts and shows, including the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU. She has also been a keynote speaker for many conferences, inspiring thousands with her credible, authentic, and engaging talks.
Jessica Zucal is a Senior Principal with Evans Consulting. As a change and transformation expert she works with leaders at the individual, team, and organization levels to build capacity for change and establish enabling conditions for success. Jessica is a NeuroLeadership trained coach and certified EQ-I 2.0 practitioner.
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