Ethnic Minority Leadership

Leadership Styles of Ethnic Minority Leaders

Provides an overview of the findings of some major studies of differences in the leadership styles of persons of color and European Americans and relates these findings to the leadership experiences and styles of ethnic minority students and faculty.

By Innocent F. Okozi, MA, Kimberly L. Smith, MA, Le Ondra Clark, MS, and Regina M. Sherman, MS

Leadership style is an area that has received modest attention in the psychology literature. Most studies examine leadership style within organizations. Less attention, however, has been paid to the examination of difference in leadership style in regards to ethnicity or race. The few studies that do examine ethnic or racial differences are limited in their description of the differences in leadership style between ethnic minority leaders versus leaders from the dominant White culture (Eagly & Johnson, 1990). Here, we will review the existing literature to help answer the question: Is there a difference in the leadership style between ethnic minority individuals versus White individuals?

In a research investigation among Black, White, and Chicano subordinates of Black and White supervisors in three industrial plants, Parker (1976) found that the Black supervisors were ranked significantly higher or more favorably than White supervisors on three of the four managerial leadership measures (managerial support, goal emphasis, and work facilitation). In other words, Black supervisors were seen as giving more support to their subordinates, placing greater emphasis on the task to be completed, and removing more obstacles that may hinder the completion of the job. Parker (1976) also found that the Chicano subordinates seemed to perceive both the Black and White supervisors similarly with respect to the interpersonal aspects of leadership (interaction facilitation), but perceived Black supervisors more favorably on task-related leadership dimensions.

Parker's findings support the argument that cultural background heavily influences leadership style (Hatty van Emmerik, Euwema, & Wendt, 2008). Other evidence suggests that ethnic minorities, in particular, tend to adopt a nurturing, inclusive, dynamic, engaging and inspiring leadership style that falls under the umbrella of "transformational leadership" (Ardichvili, Mitchell, & Jondle, 2009). Specifically, a transformational leader is one who inspires, shows respect for, and is authentic in her/his desire for the professional and personal advancement of her or his subordinates (Ayman, Korabik, & Morris, 2009). Rather than adopting a rigid, bottom line as seen in event and task oriented, transactional, or White leadership styles, ethnic minorities engage in a leadership style that is generally in direct opposition of the dominant culture. This style includes the ability of many ethnic minority leaders to lead and simultaneously connect with others in a meaningful manner which sets them apart from leaders in the dominant culture. We could argue that the unique balance of good interpersonal skills, humility and steady leadership is what distinguishes many ethnic minority leaders from leaders in the dominant culture. One contributing factor may be that individuals who represent the dominant group may be blind to their privilege, making them less aware of how their leadership style affects those whom they lead.

Others have highlighted the role that historical and modern day racism and discrimination have played in shaping the leadership style of ethnic minorities. The long history of intergenerational trauma seems to unconsciously shape the way ethnic minority leaders view and interact with the world; These experiences help to create a leadership style that is genuine and participatory in nature, with clearly defined goals and objectives. This is congruent with a social justice perspective of leadership. It has been found, for example, that the stereotypic views that emphasize that ethnic minority individuals are not qualified because of their cultural and/or racial background actually helps ethnic minorities to stay grounded and affirming to their subordinates (Trevino & Nelson, 2004).

Implications for Ethnic Minority Student and Faculty Leadership

It is important to also note that though there is little written about leadership experiences regarding students in the academy, ethnic minority students also have unique leadership experiences and styles compared to their white counterparts. Ethnic minority leaders have demonstrated their role as advocates for change and transformation amongst themselves and for those they lead, although the experience of acts of injustice during graduate school can create significant stressors (Sarros, Cooper, & Santora, 2008). Some ethnic minority students feel that they are constantly being challenged to act competently on social issues in whatever environment they find themselves.

In institutions where much emphasis is placed on achievement (attainment of status, prestige, and recognition within the organization) in comparison to affiliation (friendly interaction with students and advisees) (Bowers, 1963), some ethnic minority faculty have even been found to treat ethnic minority students in discriminatory or oppressive ways. For example, there have been cases in which ethnic minority faculty would ignore an act of discrimination against an ethnic minority student, in order to preserve her/his faculty status and good rapport with other faculty from the majority culture. Due to the power differential and underrepresentation of ethnic minority faculty in institutions of higher education, ethnic minority students often have no one in their department or graduate school to turn to for support or mentorship. There have also been cases where some ethnic minority faculty would behave more favorably with students from their own cultural group while discriminating against other ethnic minority students who are not from their own ethnic group.

Recommendations for Increased Ethnic Minority Leadership in Psychology

In conclusion, ethnic minority leadership style is different from White leadership style, and has been shown to have a positive impact on those they lead, specifically in regard to the interpersonal skills used to communicate and interact with subordinates. Furthermore, the ethnic minority leaders' increased awareness about social justice, as observed in student leaders, suggests that ethnic minority leaders strive to avoid the use of oppressive measures when providing leadership. Understanding the benefits of ethnic minority leadership is one step in building support for the recruitment and retention of ethnic minority leaders in the field of psychology, which is important given the underrepresentation of ethnic minority leaders in higher education and industry. Yet another step would be to increase ethnic minority graduate student, post-doctoral and early career psychologists' representation in leadership at the national level within APA governance and divisions, as well as at the state and regional levels.


Ardichvili, A., Mitchell, J.A., & Jondle, D. (2009). Characteristics of ethical business cultures. Journal of Business Ethics, 85(4), 445-451.

Ayman, R., Korabik, K., & Morris, S. (2009). Is transformational leadership always perceived as effective? Male subordinates' devaluation of female transformational leaders. Journal of Applied Psychology, 39(4), 852-879.

Bowers, D. G. (1963). Self-esteem and the diffusion of leadership style. Journal of Applied Psychology, 47(2), 135-140.

Eagly, A. H., & Johnson, B. T. (1990). Gender and leadership style: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 108(2), 233-256.

Hetty van Emmerik, I., Euwema, M.C., & Wendt, H. (2008). Leadership behaviors around the world, the relative importance of gender versus cultural background. International Journal of Cross-Cultural Management, 8(3), 297-315.

Parker, W. P. (1976). Black-White differences in leader behavior related to subordinates' reactions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 61(2), 140-147.

Sarros, J.C., Cooper, B. K., & Santora, J.C. (2008). Building a climate for innovation through transformational leadership and organizational culture. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 15(2), 145-158.

Trevino, L. & Nelson, K. (2004). Managing business ethics: Straight talk about how to do it right. Wiley: New York, NY.