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Social Identity & Black Male Leadership

Photo of Enin RudelBy Enin Rudel
New IBIS Senior Consultant

As a Black male, I often find myself wrestling with double consciousness, or hyperawareness, around how I am being perceived by my non-Black colleagues. Throughout my career, particularly in moments when serving in positions of leadership, this duality within my stream of consciousness has made it difficult to be fully present.

Recognizing that this phenomenon is not unique to me, I embarked on a journey to better understand the role of social identity on leadership. Specifically, I would explore this issue through the lens of executive-level, Black male leaders by conducting a series of interviews designed to capture their narratives in their own words.

Throughout the interviews, several themes emerged. Across the board, interviewees spoke of utilizing emotional intelligence as an intervention strategy. As noted by one interviewee as he reflected on his approach to leadership:

“I have to have emotional intelligence to be able to comprehend what’s happening and how to navigate the different scenarios and create solutions, understanding that people view me a certain way as a Black male. People possibly view me as not belonging. People possibly view me as an outsider, or possibly view me as an affirmative action case…so with all of those different things that are happening, externally, as well as internally, I have to figure out how to navigate that.”

In discussing the effects of social identity on leadership, the question was posed:

What is the divide between being a leader and being a Black male leader?

On so many levels, this question underscores the duality of consciousness that I spoke of earlier. It supports the notion that for the Black male leader (or for leaders of color, generally speaking), we perpetually find ourselves in high stakes situations.

I have gone through my professional trajectory (and life, by extension), feeling that when I enter into a room, my Blackness, or racial identity, often matters more than my ability to perform the task at hand.

This notion was shared by the gentlemen in this study.

When the question was raised as to what organizations could do to mitigate the effects of social identity, Intercultural Literacy surfaced as one of the potential intervention strategies. Intercultural Literacy, or one’s ability to understand cultural rules, norms, or values of other people, is thought to be the first step toward empathy and the ability to gain insight into another person’s perspective. Interviewees spoke openly about the importance of an organizations willingness to create spaces for dialogue about race. Through their collective lens, an organization’s ability to embrace the principles of inclusion, often makes the difference between whether or not they remain with the company or choose to move on.

The study referenced in this article is set to appear in an upcoming special edition of Advances in Developing Human Resources online journal and will be made available here in the fall (November 2021).

Enin Rudel is a senior consultant with IBIS.