Understanding Privilege and Power in Leadership Roles

For years, leadership has centered its practice on emotional intelligence and engaging individuals to be aware of the relationships they build with their peers.

From navigating difficult conversations to helping others understand your point of view, most believe that being a great leader means being able to connect with individuals on a deeper, more sophisticated level.

But lately, the conversation on what it means to be a great leader has recentered on something that many often fail to think about when discussing what it means to lead.

Yes, I’m talking about privilege.

While many still continue to find this word unsettling because of the weight that it carries, we can’t talk about what it means to be a great leader without discussing privilege.

Recognizing that the word privilege can often take on a different meaning when thinking about leadership, it is important to examine the concept if we are looking to make our workspaces equitable and inclusive.

Though people may often shy away from discussions about privilege in leadership spaces, becoming a great leader means being able to navigate those responsibilities and conversations, even when they make us uncomfortable.

Understand privilege

Traditionally, the word privilege has centered on the advantages and immunity certain folks inherently have because of certain aspects of their identity.

Identity often plays a role in how someone is provided leadership opportunities and we must acknowledge that identity is not the only thing at play when navigating privilege in leadership.

A truth that is often omitted when talking about privilege in leadership roles is that privilege is about access and those who have the power to provide that access within the organization. It can be said that most of the people who have access to leadership development often reflect privilege in their personal identity and sometimes harbor it for their own benefit.

Being a leader is about what you do with that privilege in the role that you hold.

Own your privilege

One of the ways that leaders fail is by not acknowledging the privilege (and power) their role provides them. When one decides to take on a leadership role, they are making a statement — whether they verbalize it or not – that they are taking responsibility for the development and care of someone else’s experience in their own role.

As a leader, a great start is to begin thinking about what systematic privilege means for you in your role and how you may benefit from it. Though the journey to examining your privilege can be difficult, some of the best leaders are those who have fully embraced their privilege and the discomfort that comes with addressing it.

Recognize that the issue is never about someone having privilege, but about what they actually do with that privilege in their leadership role. There are many other folks who might be grappling with the same experience and may learn a great deal from watching what you do and say in your position. As Maya Angelou once said, “When you know better, you do better.”

Go beyond diversity

Remember that as a leader, naming and owning your privilege can be a fleeting task, but by doing so you are creating a culture that is pushing past using diversity as a crutch. By challenging others in your area to think about the power and space they hold in your organization and actively naming what that does for you as a leader, you can begin to dive into conversations and using your role for the greater good.

By showing that you understand your privilege and how to use it to make your organization equitable, you are in fact helping to create a space that not only embraces change, but quality development.

Some things that are also important to keep in mind as you navigate the privilege in your leadership role:


Examine the space you take up in your organization

One of the greatest sayings is to “take space, make space.” As a leader who recognizes their privilege, one of the things you can do is be intentional about the space you utilize in your organization. By thinking about what you do and say to those who may look to you for leadership, you are actively showing that you are mindful of the privilege in your position.

Open doors

One thing that any leader can do with their privilege is to advocate for those who truly need it. This may mean advocating for the voices of those who are often silenced while creating space for others to speak unapologetically. Recognizing your privilege means understanding the access you have to certain spaces and dynamics in an organization and how influential you can be in helping others access that space.

Don’t apologize

One of the easiest things to do is to apologize for the privilege you have in your leadership role. Stop. Most people — if not everyone — understand that it takes work to get into your position and rarely is something simply handed to someone. However, by acknowledging the struggle that others have in getting to where you are and actively helping them get to the same level, you are creating a culture of inclusivity and actionable, equitable justice.

Coming to terms with the privilege you hold in a leadership position can truly be a difficult task, but remember, with great power comes great responsibility.

This means setting an example that includes interrogating what privilege means in your organization and how you benefit from it in your role.

By recognizing the function of privilege and creating opportunities for others who may not have the same access, you are changing the way we examine privilege in leadership roles.

Jonathan Higgins

About the author: Dr. Jonathan P. Higgins is a speaker, writer, and activist with over 10 years of student affairs experience. His work focuses on race & identity and ways to better support marginalized students while eradicating oppression. Follow him on Twitter: @DoctorJonPaul. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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