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Intersectional Leadership: what it is, and why it is critical for businesses' wellbeing.

Interpreting and appreciating "leadership" through the lens of Intersectionality.

by Zhou Fang, Intersectional Group

As someone who identifies as an intersectional leader and intersectional feminist, I find it necessary to talk about intersectional leadership: what it is, and why it is critical for businesses' profitability, innovation, and culture.

The leaders I work with, oftentimes, are folks who are not stereotypical leaders (think white, heterosexual, male identified people in their 30s, 40s, or 50s). They work in technology, human resources, education, non profits, finance, science, etc. I consider them as intersectional leaders. Why?

Intersectionality, created by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, is a framework for understanding how an individual's various social and political identities combine to influence discrimination and privilege. Examples of these identities include gender, sex, race and ethnicity, class, sexuality, religion and spirituality, ability status, physical appearance, mental wellbeing, socioeconomic status, party identity, neuro-diversity, etc.

Traditionally, leadership models usually focus on a one-size-fits-all approach, assuming that what works for one individual will work for everyone. An intersectional perspective challenges this notion by recognizing that leadership effectiveness can vary significantly based on the diverse backgrounds and experiences of team members.

Now, I want to clarify that just because someone looks like a stereotypical leader, it doesn't necessarily mean that their leadership style is one-size-fits-all. However, it does oftentimes create barriers for them to leave the comfort zone and learn about new ways to lead. It is, in itself, a point for intersectional leadership, which includes intersectional and diverse ways of thinking and leading.

In my work with intersectional leaders (think women, people of color, immigrants, lgbtq+ members, people with disabilities, people who are older, transgender folks, etc.), I am regularly blown away by how much they want to lead by setting a good example for the team and their industry. Because of their intersectional identities, they have the ability to relate to, or/and empathize with their staff, coworkers, colleagues, and sometimes their bosses.

For example, when a staff member went to a client of mine, who is an intersectional leader, and asked for a more flexible work schedule because they needed to spend more time with their young children, it was easy for my client to accommodate because they remembered the difficulties they had raising young kids. My client was able to relate to and empathize with the employee and make it easier for them to work and care for family at the same time.

Another example is self-reflection, which applies to many intersectional leaders I work with. Because of the intersectional identities these leaders have, many of them had to work harder and experience more discriminations and doubts than stereotypical leaders to get to where they are today. As a result, when they lead, they tend to reflect on "how they lead" "whether or not they are setting a good example" "are they being fair and equitable" "are they being inclusive" "is this an inclusive workplace", etc. This kind of self-reflection work is vital for businesses' continuous growth, because it helps intersectional leaders bring a broader range of perspectives, empathy, and problem-solving skills to the table, allowing them to connect with a more diverse workforce and make better-informed business decisions.

Now, just because someone is an intersectional leader, it doesn't mean they naturally know how to do their job. In order to lead intersectionally and successfully, here are a few things intersectional leaders may do:

1. Explore specific inclusive leadership behaviors that intersectional leaders can adopt. This may include active listening, acknowledging diverse perspectives, creating psychological safety, and promoting equitable opportunities for all team members.

2. Discuss the challenges that intersectional leaders may face, such as biases and misunderstanding from team members or colleagues. Provide strategies to address these challenges, such as education, training, and setting a positive example through leadership.

3. Analyze how intersectionality influences decision-making processes within the organization. Encourage leaders to consider the impact of their decisions on individuals with different identities and experiences.

4. Intersectional leaders have an opportunity to empower and amplify the voices of employees from marginalized groups. Highlight the importance of creating platforms for these folks to share their perspectives and ideas.

5. Discuss how intersectional leaders can serve as active allies and advocates for underrepresented groups. This includes actively supporting policies that promote equity, speaking out against discrimination, and promoting a culture of inclusivity.

6. Suggest the implementation of intersectional training and development programs for leaders and employees. These programs can enhance awareness, empathy, and cultural competence, ultimately contributing to a more inclusive workplace.

7. Develop metrics and indicators to measure the success of their intersectional leadership initiatives. Measuring progress will help identify areas for improvement and celebrate achievements. This is an important step because only through measuring and evaluating, organizations can learn about intersectional leadership's impact on profitability, innovation, and culture, and then make adjustment to leadership and strategy accordingly.

Leaders, keep in mind that intersectional leadership is an ongoing journey that requires continuous learning, adaptability, accountability, and a commitment to creating an inclusive and equitable workplace for all.

More reading on intersectional leadership's impact on culture, innovation, and profitability:


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