slide 1


Further Developing Leaders of Color: A Systems Approach to Equity

In recent years philanthropy has recognized leadership development as a key strategy in improving the participation of people of color and low-income individuals in the positions and spaces that determine policies, procedures, and practices intended to produce social change. Nonetheless, many leadership development programs reflect prevailing cultural values regarding individualism and assume that just selecting and developing the “right” individuals and providing them with specific knowledge and skills will naturally result in an increased individual capacity, strengthened organizations, an increased collective leadership capacity, and an improved ability to serve the community. This approach, however, does not address the structural and systemic barriers that constrain individual power or reflect the fact that collaborative approaches are needed to dismantle structural racism and advance equity. This article summarizes key principles about how to create the conditions and capacities needed to support leaders of color seeking to advance equity and social justice from our evaluations of leadership development programs.

Changing the behavior of individuals is necessary but not sufficient to achieve equity and social justice; it will not necessarily result in comprehensive systems interventions that address the underlying causes of structural racism and inequity. Community Science has evaluated a number of leadership development programs and found that for these programs to work, a number of key elements need to be emphasized beyond a focus on the individual development of traditional leadership skills.

Focus Explicitly on Social Justice and Equity. Justice and equity-based leadership models must lead very explicitly and intentionally with values around social justice, recognition and redress of structural inequity, and the creation of conditions in which members of marginalized communities can thrive. Such models are well positioned to help leaders and their organizations harness the collective power of their constituents and communities to participate in social action and effect social change (Ospina, 2012).

Provide Space for Self-Reflection. Leadership development is both a professional and a personal process. There are many insights and “aha” moments that can only be achieved through purposeful self-reflection and internal dialogue. Indeed, leadership development can be most beneficial when participants are given space to process learning and make meaning of their background and experiences (Komives, Lucas, & McMahon, 1998; Raffo, 2012). This can be facilitated by self-assessment, individual learning plans, retreats, prayer, meditation, mindfulness practice, journaling, and deliberate solitude. In particular, an understanding of one’s background, identities, and experiences is particularly important for those that seek to lead social change work. Therefore, helping leaders achieve a deeper understanding of the past and the ongoing impacts of culture, power, privilege, social injustice, inequity, structural racism, and similar issues on their own lives and the lives of others can help them look directly at how they are situated and the ways in which these factors influence their perspectives and behaviors.

Provide Space for Self-Care. Leaders that work to advance equity and social justice are susceptible to burnout at any point in life if they do not intentionally develop a plan for loving and taking care of themselves. Leaders often buy into the myth that if they are not out constantly doing “the real work,” they are failing their followers and community. Leaders must recognize, however, caring for themselves is not an act of self-indulgence but rather an act of self-maintenance and self-preservation. Like reflection, self-care can be facilitated through a variety of means such as retreats; prayer; meditation; mindfulness practice; journaling; recreational, rejuvenation, and enrichment activities; or sabbaticals.

Build Effective Networks. Network or cohort approaches to leadership development recognize the importance of interpersonal connections between individuals. Effective leadership development involves developing leaders’ social capital by cultivating relationships to facilitate cooperation, information and resource exchange, and the creation of collective value (Day, 2000). Networks can be created for people that share a similar experience or have a common identity, and it can be formal or informal (Sugiyama, Cavanagh, & van Esch, 2016). The benefits of networks are they provide opportunities for peer-to-peer support, offer new perspectives, provide opportunities to share failures and accomplishments, and facilitate connections that can bring joint value later down the line (Williams & Lindsey, 2011).

Focus on Collective and Shared Leadership Development. In many situations, leaders come together to help produce social change through dynamic interactions. Historically, however, many leadership development programs have not fully recognized that groups of leaders, and not just individuals, facilitate social change in many contexts (Petrie, 2014). A focus on collective leadership development, therefore, goes beyond a focus on the creation of network connections to emphasize how leaders can grow and engage in social change actions in communities with each other as well as how conditions can be created within organizations, sectors, or communities to maximize the potential for leadership to manifest (Wassenaar & Pearce, 2012).

Recognize the Importance of Both Transactional and Transformational Leadership. Transactional leadership theory views leadership as a transaction that occurs between individuals. Transactional relationships between leaders and followers occur when parties work to maximize personal and organizational gains with a focus on the exchange of time, money, goods, and similar resources (Burns, 1978; McCleskey, 2014). Transactional leadership capacities are important for leaders to obtain and manage resources, especially in marginalized communities and the organizations that serve them. Transformational leaders, however, are able to extend beyond these skills to inspire movement toward higher-level changes. Transformational leaders display an interest in helping followers achieve a broader impact than they might have otherwise thought possible. They exhibit courage and charisma and inspire followers to rise to the occasion (Bass, 2003; Bass & Riggio, 2015; Fluker, 2015). Specifically, a leader interested in generating social change must have the capacity to empower his or her constituency to reach common goals and meet common needs while remaining accountable to the same constituency. The leader must take a demonstrated interest in the success of his or her followers and work to enable them to reach individual, organizational, and collective goals.

Address Biased Beliefs, Policies, Procedures, and Practices Within Sectors and Organizations. There is a prevailing assumption that to increase racial and ethnic diversity among leaders, people of color simply need better skills or more training. Leaders of color, however, face a range of obstacles, including a lack of access to ongoing professional development and support after a given leadership development opportunity has ended, limited resources, cultural differences, prejudice, institutional racism, and isolation from power. Therefore, to create social contexts in which leaders of color can be successful, sectors and organizations must address the biased beliefs, policies, procedures, and practices that govern them to provide strong pathways for people of color to take on greater leadership. Therefore, to fully realize the goals of their leadership development efforts, funders and their partners should play an active role in promoting equitable policies, procedures, and practices within the sectors and communities that are the target for their leadership development efforts.

Support Individuals and the Organizations within Which They Are Embedded. To be effective, leaders must be embedded within strong, supportive organizations that can back them and support their communities. Nonetheless, historically, there has been an underinvestment in the organizational capacity of community-based and grassroots organizations. Funders should consider providing grants to leadership program participants’ organizations to build their organizational capacity during or shortly after leaders’ participation in the program to help strengthen leaders’ organizations, create a pipeline of leadership, and improve community infrastructure. Organizational capacity includes a variety of factors that contribute to the health and performance of an organization, such as governance and leadership, mission and vision, program delivery, resource development, internal operations, and interorganizational relationships. Such grants, therefore, could support organizational capacity development activities like strategic planning, business planning, and organizational assessment; board and staff development; fund-raising, marketing, and communications planning and implementation; technologic and infrastructure upgrades in areas of need; financial management; and feasibility assessment and implementation of mergers and strategic alliances.

Develop Systems Thinking Abilities. Leaders that seek to address the complex problems of structural racism, inequity, and social injustice must have the ability to get at the root causes of these issues and develop and implement appropriate solutions. Developing leaders’ ability to act as systems thinkers can aide them in this process (Stroh, 2015; Uhl-Bien & Marion, 2011). One helpful approach uses an iceberg metaphor to look beneath simple events to see underlying patterns that create those events; the deeper programs, policies, and practices that create those patterns or trends; and the mental models or assumptions that create and maintain those programs, policies, and practices. By helping leaders to see what is going on beneath the surface to drive the social problems they hope to address, they will be better able to identify promising leverage points—places within a system where a small amount of effort can produce much broader and lasting change. They can then, in turn, develop systems interventions tailored to these points of greatest leverage to advance equity and justice within their communities.

Maintain Robust Alumni Networks. Funders and implementers of leadership programs can benefit from playing a role in seeing that program participants remain connected after they complete the core program.  A leadership program’s alumni network can be a source of peer learning, continuing education, collaboration, joint action, organizing and advocacy, career advancement, or a resource for the program itself as it reflects on its structure and operations. However, those who support alumni networks will have more success in creating a self-organizing and self-sustaining body of leaders if they resist the temptation to do the “heavy lifting” to make things happen. Rather, they should focus on reinforcing a network culture that encourages and empowers alumni to act, seize opportunities, take chances, and learn. While program staff can provide a platform and space for alumni activities, they should encourage alumni to take ownership and drive connections with each other and those outside the formal network around common learning interests or opportunities for joint work or action to change systems and communities. Further, an alumni network can provide a space for mutual accountability and personal and professional support for a program whose long-term outcomes are to accelerate or catalyze leaders’ ability to drive social change. The alumni network and its members can stand as a reminder of this charge as well as provide the organizing and advocacy resources and emotional, social, and professional support that leaders need over the long term to work toward social change.

The leadership development field continues to evolve as stakeholders raise questions that challenge traditional beliefs about who leaders are, how they can effectively lead, and the connection between individual and collective leadership and social change. As the field undergoes this critical examination, philanthropic organizations must also undergo self-examination and consider their role in supporting leaders and leadership development as a strategy to drive social change. As new models and approaches continue to emerge, funders and implementers can benefit from investment in good evaluations that focus on the core components of these efforts, the context in which they occur, and the overarching social change goals the programs hope to achieve. Evaluation of leadership development must move beyond solely focusing on factors related to individuals and incorporate considerations around organizations, cohorts and networks, and the systems and policies leaders hope to impact. Such evaluations can help produce the knowledge necessary to understand the implementation of these programs as well as their short- and long-term outcomes with respect to social change. Funders and implementers can also benefit from an explicit focusing on multiple ecological levels—the individual leader, the organization the leader is embedded within, the networks to which the leader belongs, and the broader community or sector that is the ultimate target for social change. Such a focus will facilitate both the development of individual knowledge and skills within the individual leader and also strengthen the surrounding infrastructure and conditions needed to organize, advocate, and pursue social change. Finally, funders and implementers must adopt a future orientation if they hope for their leadership development programs to accomplish social change over the long term. Providing a supportive environment over the long term can help prevent burnout among leaders and provide the support needed to “stay the course” and take advantage of emerging opportunities as they work to advance equity.


Bass, B. M. (2003). Face to face—power to change: A conversation with Bernard M. Bass. Leadership in Action, 23(2), 9–11.
Bass, B. M., & Riggio, R. E. (2015). The transformational model of leadership. In Leading organizations: Perspectives for a new era (3rd ed., pp. 76–86). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. (Reprinted from Transformational leadership (pp. 3–16). Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates).
Day, D. V. (2000). Leadership development: A review in context. Leadership Quarterly, 11(4), 581.
Fluker, W. E. (2015). Now we must cross a sea: Remarks on transformational leadership and the civil rights movement. Boston University Law Review, 95(3), 1225–1232.
Komives, S., Lucas, N., & McMahon, T. R. (1998). Exploring leadership: For college students who want to make a difference. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
McCleskey, J. A. (2014). Situational, transformational, and transactional leadership and leadership development. Journal of Business Studies Quarterly, 5(4), 117–130. Retrieved from =28598
Ospina, S. M., Foldy, E. G., El Hadidy, W. Dodge, J., Hofmann-Pinilla, A., & Su, C. (2012). Social change leadership as relational leadership. In M. Uhl-Bien & S. M. Ospina (Eds.), Advancing relational leadership research: A dialogue among perspectives (pp. 255–302). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
Petrie, N. (2014). Future trends in leadership development. Center for Creative Leadership. Retrieved from
Sugiyama, K., Cavanagh, K., & van Esch, C. (2016). Inclusive leadership development: Drawing from pedagogies of women’s and general leadership development programs. Journal of Management Education, 40(3), 253–292, doi: 10.1177/1052562916632553.
Raffo, D. (2012). Blogging as a reflective tool for leadership development: An exploratory study of a leadership practicum grounded in the relational leadership model. Delta Pi Epsilon Journal, 54(2), 39–51.
Stroh, D. P. (2015). Systems thinking for social change: A practical guide to solving complex problems, avoiding unintended consequences, and achieving lasting results. Chelsea Green Publishing.
Uhl-Bien, M., & Marion, R (2011). Complexity leadership theory. In Leading organizations: Perspectives for a new era (3rd ed., pp. 228–245). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. (Reprinted from The SAGE handbook of leadership (pp. 468–483). SAGE Publications.
Wassenaar, C., & Pearce, C. (2012). The nature of shared leadership. In Leading organizations: Perspectives for a new era (3rd ed., pp. 177–196). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. (Reprinted from The nature of leadership (pp. 363–389). SAGE Publications.
Williams, L. L., & Lindsey, M. J. (2011). Rural leaders and leadership development in Pennsylvania. Harrisburg, PA: The Center for Rural Pennsylvania.
Share |