Race Equity in Action: What Happens When Your Leadership is not Enough?

Organizational leaders often encounter BIG challenges. I think such challenges produce “scary-citement” feelings — a combination of fear and excitement. Think about when you have felt that tingling in the bottom of your stomach. Maybe it’s how you feel right before an important meeting, solidifying a new public partnership, or securing a grant to do equity work for the first time. So many of these BIG moments are a part of an organization’s racial equity journey.


I believe that these BIG leadership moments are preceded by a multitude of SMALLER moments.


I think of standing up for a colleague after a microaggression, incorporating that data point into a report that you know may be edited out — but still making your case. I think advocating for pay equity when everyone is thinking about raises for themselves but not that administrative professionals are consistently left out of fair wage considerations. Leading equitably through the moments noted above comes at a cost, and we don’t pay equally.


I read an article in the Harvard Business Review that noted a study of corporate executives found that “white and male executives aren’t rewarded, career-wise, for engaging in diversity-valuing behavior, and nonwhite and female executives actually get punished for it.” (I use the term nonwhite as it is used in the article.) Racial equity initiatives are a concrete way to get started. However, leadership in the work happens in the tiniest of moments. The way one shows up in the tiny moments grants credibility when the big moment arrives.

For leaders who identify as BIPOC*, the credit for doing racial equity work and calling the hard questions is not the same as for your white counterparts. The risk is not the same either.

Racial equity takes courage. In the many hard decisions that are inevitable when an organization takes on this work — some people simply cannot lead in these moments. I am not centering white leaders here — rather every leader who lacks courage. A colleague asked me recently if I think courage can be built. A good question. I think I, as a DEI practitioner, can coach someone through fear. I can’t create courage. Right now, I think many organizations are facing incredibly difficult questions around racial equity and their respective identities. I also think a hard question for leaders is, ”Who are you and what do you stand for?” Sadly, not every answer will move an organization forward.

So what happens if you can’t pay the costs? If you are not the leader for this moment?

I think in many cases, this is where racial equity work dies. Sometimes within organizations or companies, the call is too great, the moment too intense. Leaders cannot adapt. Here is where a need to shift leadership becomes clear. Stepping aside requires courage as well — to say, in the words of a Great British Baking Show finalist, who was leaving the competition, “I have gone as far as I can. I have reached my limit.”


Yet, many times, the work goes, instead of the leader.


While BIG events lead to these outcomes, the clues are long left in those SMALLER missed opportunities for leadership.



*BIPOC = Black, Indigenous, and people of color

Author: Joanna Shoffner Scott
Joanna Shoffner Scott is an experienced management consultant with deep expertise in racial equity. She is the founder and principal of Stamey Street Consulting Group, LLC, and is a Senior Consultant with the Race Matters Institute of JustPartners, Inc. Joanna has consulted with numerous organizations all over the country on unpacking race in their every day work.