October 14, 2019
Leadership Identification vs. Leadership Development
For the work with young leaders of color within the Greater Northwest Area of the United Methodist Church we have adopted the language of “leadership identification” rather than “leadership development”. This is a strategic move. Any large predominantly white institution cannot do leadership development with young leaders of color and make the necessary changes that young leaders of color can offer.
Developing leaders is a very important process. God entrusts senior and mid-career leaders with the opportunity to pass along the needed perspectives and skills to an upcoming generation. If done well, leadership development pushes the young leader into becoming a more mature version of themselves rather than a person made in the image of the older leader. Leadership development can happen in one-one mentoring or within systematized corporate initiatives aimed at institutional growth.
Institutions need institutionalized leaders for thriving in the next iteration of their work. Institutions large and small have the agenda to guard their own existence. White institutions have been successful in a white world by institutionalizing white values and convictions. Therefore, asking young leaders of color to be developed in those spaces is a recipe for assimilation. Assimilation is the intentional or unintentional process of acclimating leaders of color to white corporate values and culture in order to adapt to and adopt in order to succeed or advance.
There is an often overlooked reality that many leaders of color come with the ready skills for ministry and innovation. Young leaders of color come with “soft skills” that are rarely assessable and often not understood. Due to their real lived experiences navigating whiteness in the church and the world, young leaders of color are
- Experienced in cross cultural work and navigating diverse spiritual traditions
- Have deeper understanding of social systems analysis
- Adept to many forms of code switching
- Proficient in maximizing opportunities within white institutions
- have a learned ability to navigate complex social systems leading to skilled problem solving
- thus, more qualified to become oriented as innovators and change agents
Leadership development opportunities led by white leaders fail to build upon these strengths while sometimes “raising them up” to “unlearn” these valuable abilities. This assimilation has a cost on the organization and the leader.
For the leader, they learn that they cannot bring their full self and gifts to the ministry. Over the long term, the inability to minister from your full self can cause frustration, ineffective work, stress and health issues, and can ultimately cause the loss of the edge and distinction that the leader of color has in white spaces.
The organizational cost of assimilation is steep as well. Most organizations say they value diversity and need it to live into their mission. Often leaders of color come to white professional spaces with a different perspective and different convictions. While white institutions profess to needing this difference, leaders of color are regularly met with resistance, hostility, and an agenda to assimilate. Developing young leaders within the white institutional culture will only continue a process of always doing and being what has always been.
Therefor we are “identifying leaders” who are ready to serve in the UM system rather than “developing leaders” who are not. We disbelieve in the ability of large predominantly white institutions to do the essential work of developing leaders of color. We hope that this empowers new leaders of color to lead from their lived experiences AND we hope the institution will accept and respect these new voices for the experts they are. New leaders of color within the system are the best voices to discern the pathways forward for just and equitable diversity initiatives. In uncertain Methodist times, they also may be the best voices to discern the pathways forward for a new expression of Methodism.