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Courageous Leadership – How Being An Outlier Is Your Edge

Written by: Dr. Helen Ofosu, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

Executive Contributor Dr. Helen Ofosu

One of my current preoccupations is the concept of courageous leadership. I have noticed that sometimes, people in leadership positions have opportunities to have an impact, but they are reluctant to follow through on big or bold ideas or plans. On many levels, this risk-averse or even borderline cowardly style of leadership doesn’t make any sense to me when the leader is intelligent, experienced, has a good track record, and has terrific interpersonal skills.

Wine glass with food color

I suspect some of this reluctance is linked to fear. And to be fair, some leaders have had experiences that have left them somewhat afraid.

Being an “only”

It’s possible that some leaders don’t demonstrate courageous leadership because it can be hard to act alone or lead from way out front. When I am working with an executive coaching client who is an “only” or part of a tiny minority, I like to remind them that, as outsiders of sorts, they may see what others may miss.

When we are an “only” or part of a small minority, our lived experiences may differ from those around us.

Being the person who anticipates or sees around corners when others can’t and solving problems that nobody else can solve are extraordinary skills that can make a leader invaluable.

Despite all the rhetoric around diversity, equity, and inclusion, some people remain determined to treat members of equity-seeking groups (e.g., racialized people, members of the LGBTQ2S+ communities, people with disabilities, religious minorities, etc.) as though they are inferior. Over time, it’s inevitable that some of that seeps into the psyches of equity-deserving group members, almost like a marinade. But, instead of feeling inferior because of how others may have treated you, try to reframe your outsider status as unique. Lean into your status as someone who is distinctive and possibly on the bleeding edge. Don’t underestimate one of your best qualities and strategic advantages!

Fear that, as a minority, you can’t make an impact

When we know we are swimming upstream and are somehow different from everyone else, it can be tempting to try to blend in. But, when we have a unique identity, it may be impossible to acculturate or fit in – even if we try.

I sometimes reflect on some of my experiences working as a psychologist within the (Canadian) federal public service. I was surrounded by homogeneity. So many people were introverted, risk-averse/conservative, and white. I tend to be somewhat extroverted and creative… and I am Black. Even if I had tried, I could not have blended in. At key moments in my government career, I embraced my creativity and outlier status and delivered bold work that is still being used and built upon over 12 years later.

So, lean into your special status as someone who is unique and remember the impact of one drop of food coloring in a glass of water or milk. That tiny burst of colour changes the entire environment. You might be that burst of change that your organization is counting on.

Trauma and stress

Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Professor, and Author Dr. Thema Bryant notes that,

“The realities of trauma and stress can cause us to shrink and live beneath the radar and hide.”

In the context of work, when a racialized (or other underrepresented) leader has tolerated countless years of microaggressions, belittling or humiliating comments about an aspect of their identity, been passed over for promotions repeatedly, or dealt with ongoing tokenism or other forms of discrimination, it takes a heavy and negative toll. Sadly, these experiences are still far too common in the histories of Black, Indigenous, people of colour, and members of other equity-deserving groups. These types of experiences are finally being categorized as trauma, which means the victims are finally getting the empathy and support that they deserve and need to recover.

Climbing the corporate ladder is already challenging and stressful. But when you combine the “standard” challenges to a leader’s career progression with these hurtful and traumatic experiences, it’s easy to see why some leaders downplay aspects about themselves and play smaller than they should as a way to shield themselves from additional harm. I talk about this more in this previous article about covering at work as a form of self-protection).

Crucible leadership as an antidote

In another article, I defined crucible leadership as “the art of leading through adversity, personal transformation, and resilience.” Leaders who demonstrate crucible leadership have often faced significant hardships that have tested their perseverance, character, and adaptability.

Ironically, members of underrepresented and equity-deserving groups are often stereotyped as lacking leadership qualities. Yet, the reality is that most of these leaders have survived so many crucibles of hardship that, by definition, they are phenomenal examples of effective crucible leadership. They often lack the support, mentorship, or sponsorship that others can take for granted. Their success demanded perseverance, character, and adaptability to navigate the obstacles they faced along the way.

So, the next time you’re feeling scared to take the action that you know you should take, I hope reflecting on some of these examples helps you to remember what you’ve already accomplished and demonstrate courageous leadership.

Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, TikTok, and Twitter/X, and visit my website to find more ways to become more resilient in your career.

Dr. Helen Ofosu Brainz Magazine

Dr. Helen Ofosu, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Dr. Helen Ofosu has been practising Industrial / Organizational Psychology (also known as Work or Business Psychology) in the public and private sectors for almost 20 years. In addition to Career and Executive Coaching, her specialties include the assessment and development of leadership skills, and navigating the complex issues of workplace bullying, harassment, diversity and inclusion. Dr. Ofosu is one of the founding officers of the Section on Black Psychology, Canadian Psychological Association and she’s thrilled to have written a new book “How to be Resilient in Your Career: Facing Up to Barriers at Work” that was published by Routledge in February 2023.



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