Akilah Wallace for WOC: Empathetic Leadership During the Storm

“Lead with an iron fist,” some said.

“Never let them see you cry,” others recommended.

“You were born to lead,” many affirmed.

Countless people have offered advice and encouragement to me as a leader over the years. Yet the idea of empathy in leadership has rarely been addressed. As a Black female nonprofit executive who this winter finds herself in a transparent and vulnerable moment, I felt compelled to write down some of my struggles in these extraordinary times in Texas nonprofit history.

Layer on the pandemic, heightened racial tensions, and then—Boom!—a winter storm with near-zero temperatures that collapsed the state’s power grid and left millions of Texans in dark and unheated homes. I knew it wasn’t just going to be bad, it was going to be deadly.

My first instinct was to reach out to my staff and inquire about their housing, food, and other needs. In my experience, employers rarely do wellness checks on their employees, other than to inquire if the employee will be working or not. And while nonprofits are quick to respond to community needs during a disaster, how many organizations offer direct support to their own staff? As an empathetic leader, I am always first concerned about those closest to me and then I expand my outreach.

I considered my teams’ mental health and reminded them of our EAP program and insurance plans that could assist with counseling. With a team of majority women of color, I understood how responses to crisis and trauma live in our bodies. Science proves it lives in the DNA of African-American women with lineage to slavery, Jim Crow, and the modern-day lynchings of Black bodies on social media. In my role, I must consider all the harms against the communities my organization serves as well as my staff. And then I act to protect them. …

… Being an empathetic leader likely isn’t the best long-term strategy, but I’m convinced Love Leadership written by John Hope Bryant, represents the legacy I prefer to leave.  It focuses on leading with love and respect, recognizes that there can be no strength without legitimate suffering, nor power without vulnerability. As Black women, when we call for equity, protection, love, and healing, we are speaking with love and respect, with a history of legitimate suffering, and through our own vulnerability. Give us this moment to show our greatness. Unless you are one of us, you cannot understand what we go through to successfully exist, much less lead in America today.

Excerpted from WOC. Read the full article here.

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