The theme for this year’s Canadian Black History Month, was #ourstotell. I took the opportunity to have a virtual fireside chat with four Black Women in Leadership across the public service, civic/community and business sectors in Canada. They each reflected on the question: What does leading in these times of both trauma and transformation require of you? Here are some enduring lessons and 3 key takeaways from each panelist in the conversation and their answers to the top 3 questions asked, paraphrased and/or in their words. It is noteworthy that some clear themes emerged from each panelist’s storytelling of lessons from their personal leadership journeys. The themes were leadership identity (grounding in self-definition), belonging (finding supportive community) and agency (how leadership is enacted from the positionality of Black/African identities). As I wrote in the conclusion of Destinies: A flash fiction collection: “It is my conclusion, that the trifecta of engaging identity, belonging and agency, are core to defining how global Africans, and perhaps other socially constructed and disadvantaged racial groups, can engage the world and choose transformational social action, in small and big ways from wherever they find themselves.” Here’s to uplifting Black Excellence this February and forever…Thank you to each panelist for their gifts of wisdom and enduring leadership lessons.
Councillor Trish Mandewo is the First Black Coquitlam City Councilor, is the First Vice President for Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) and a serial entrepreneur, currently the Founder of Synergy Executive & Boards Consulting Group dedicated to Indigenous, Black and People of Color placement. Trish has served on over 20 Boards.
Leadership Inspiration: The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they aren’t true, but they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- Identity: Identity is essential. Knowing who you are first and foremost will influence how others see you. This is a lesson received from my father that served me well. You are not a single story or stereotype, and you define who you are.
- Use your voice and take action to share your privilege and decentralize power: Using our voices and taking action is important to recognizing the privilege of being in leadership roles and understanding that for us, leadership must be used to decentralize and share power.
- Ubuntu: Leadership is Collective: Leadership isn’t a solitary endeavor. In African traditions, we understand the Ubuntu way: I am because you are. And therefore, leadership must be enacted with compassion and empathy for the people we serve.
Paulette Senior is President and Chief Executive Officer of The Canadian Women’s Foundation and past Chief Executive Officer of YWCA Canada. Paulette has served on Boards throughout her professional career and self-identifies as an executive devoted to gender justice. She is recipient of several Black community and leadership awards.
Leadership Inspiration: “Still, we rise! Maya Angelou
- Leadership Presence/Leading as Yourself: No matter the route that brought us to this land, whether through slavery, colonialism, or a wicked combination of the two, the systems designed to exploit and destroy us have failed. And evidence that these systems have failed is because we’re here. Leading as myself has been the most powerful, transformative act that I have taken, Leading with a vision that is informed by who I am and not having others tell me what that is, is a transformative, if not a revolutionary act.
- Leadership Legacy, A generational lens: We come from a legacy of striving and succeeding and in thinking about the legacy that I need to leave, it is important that I am thinking about the generations to come.
- Trust your leadership journey: Collectively, we have been left with enduring legacies that continue to ignite an unquenchable desire for justice and equality. That is what brought me to this work and I never would have thought 30 something years later, that being an activist, organizing demonstrations against racism and police brutality would have landed me here today, where I’m leading Canada’s national women’s organization, and foundation for gender equality. That is a route I never imagined.
HE Lorraine Anderson is High Commissioner of Canada to Cameroon and Ambassador of Canada to Chad (designated). She is a diplomat, executive and international human rights and humanitarian lawyer with experience across the post-conflict to development spectrum and an avid advocate for supporting Black leaders.
Leadership Inspiration: “Every time you state what you want or believe, you’re the first to hear it. It’s a message to both you and others about what you think is possible. Don’t put a ceiling on yourself.” –Oprah Winfrey”
- Know Yourself & Your Values: My bio says what I do, not who I am. It’s important to know your history and the ancestors on whose shoulders we are standing, understanding that we do come from a history of leadership of Kings, of Queens, of People in societies helping each other. This helps us bring our full selves and helps me in my leadership values when I am in a challenging situation.
- Sources of Resilience: I think it is really important to find sources of resilience because it ain’t easy, as we all know, and mine is my village. And my village contains people who know me, who support me, and who I can be my true self with.
- Representation…. And deconstructing unhelpful narratives matters. It’s a great thing to have representation but also for those who are in those spaces as the first, it can be a bit burdensome, because you feel a sense of responsibility of not only doing your best but also knowing you are being evaluated on the impact of your leadership for future leaders from those who feel that they can define leadership for you. So some of what I’ve had to learn myself is to let go of that responsibility, not let go of the responsibility of bringing others with me, but letting go of the responsibility, that I alone will be the gatekeeper for all future leaders. So for me, as a leader, what I have to do is deconstruct that narrative for myself, first of all, but also one of my key leadership pillars is to deconstruct that narrative for others, for them to see who they truly are, for them to be able to define who they truly are and then unleash that power and unleash that wholeness that they bring to have an impact in our communities and in our societies.
Musu Taylor-Lewis is Director, Resources and Public Engagement at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank with over 15 years experience leading teams to consistently produce double digit revenue increases in a variety of organizational settings. She currently serves as co-chair of the taskforce of accountability for anti-racism efforts in the international cooperation sector.
Leadership Inspiration: “A leader who has no followers, is only out for a nice walk.” adapted from John Maxwell
- Flexibility and Adaptability: These are key to leadership in these times. We are in very, very fast paced, changing times, trauma itself shows up in very unexpected ways. And transformation can be good, and it can be additionally traumatizing for people. Flexibility allows us to respond to our empathy and to lead from empathy allows us to seize the moment as they come as we’re presented with opportunities to lead or to bring ourselves into a situation that we’re dealing with. Sometimes we have to recognize that transformation, whether it’s good transformation or not, can include some grief and loss that whenever we’re in that season of change, there are people experiencing loss. And that’s just part of transformation. And so our flexibility and adaptability in situations then allows us to lead from a place of empathy.
- Be a continuous learner: Staying informed. Things are moving so fast that we cannot depend on knowledge or tactics or even understandings from five years ago. Yet, as many of us are just learning our histories now because of colonial systems of education that managed our understanding of who we are, so therefore our knowledge of our history is limited. And so continuing to learn, continuing to gain understanding for this time, and this season is going to be very important. As leaders, we have to know what we don’t know. I am very comfortable with seeking expertise from others and learning from those who know more about different areas than I do.
- Focus, focus, focus: Your focus should come out of your goals, your purpose and your values. Ubuntu, faith-based values, or secular values. Regardless, you need to know yourself, you need to understand your values, you have to understand your purpose. One of the things that we’ve heard here today was this idea that we are working within systems, we are living within systems that were originally designed to destroy us in many ways. But within those systems, the idea that we are here means that our very presence challenges those systems.
Top 3 questions asked and responded to:
- How do you deal with being the only or one of few black people in a space, and the self doubt that comes with that?
- PS: If you have imposter syndrome, which comes from preconceived negative notions that people come at you with, become clear on who you are and your mission and use that to keep you grounded and focused.
- TM: I enter spaces with no impostor syndrome, because I’ve done that introspection. My father and my mother told me: “you are the queen.” so, in literally every space I walk into, I’m like, the Queen is coming into the house, and I own it. And I also come from a place where I’m saying, you’ve got something, I’ve got something that you need to know. I’ve got a perspective that you don’t have. And I own that perspective.
- LA: I just let my work speak for itself. But the other thing I would do is tell myself if someone has put you in this position, they believe it, why don’t you believe it. And so if someone else external to me can think that I can do this job, then definitely, I know that I can do the job.
- MTL: As Lorraine said earlier, when you’ve been in a black majority environment where everybody from the President to the cleaner is the same as you, you don’t put limits on yourself based on race, or even maybe from gender. I have now recognized that that is not to be taken for granted. So when you are the only in an environment, I would encourage you to start off if you need to access that external affirmation from somebody putting you in that place. But also start to praise generously the other onlys in your environment. And the last thing I would say is what Paulette said: be yourself. Your very presence, challenges the system. So be yourself. Be as comfortable in that space as you can be. And reach again for those sponsors and mentors, outside of the particular system that you’re in to give you perspective, when for many of us that trauma comes in to lie to us about what we can or cannot do. And I’ll just end by saying when you ask yourself the question why should I be the one to do something, ask yourself, why not me?
- What’s the most important advice for young leaders today?
- TM: Move beyond mentors and find a sponsor who is going to be your champion
- As leaders across the country, what advice can you share for those in their first leadership roles? And how can senior leaders support others in their learning?
- LA: As a first time leader, don’t expect that you are going to know all the answers and do not be scared to ask questions and say, I do not know, including to some of the people that you are leading, because people respect the fact that they have a leader who acknowledges that they don’t know, will go find out and then come back to them with an answer. That shows integrity, and that shows vulnerability.
- MTL: For first time leaders, my advice would be the Nike slogan, just do it. Don’t wait until you feel fully confident. Study after study after study has shown that women are less likely to put their names forward, to put their hands up to step forward to do things that they know they can do. Because of a variety of reasons of the ways we’ve been socialized. So just do it. Whatever it is for you just do it.