Ethnic Minority Leadership

Too Legit to Quit: Strategies of Successful African-American Female Leaders*

Provides a brief report of two studies that examine (a) the perceived impact of race and gender on leadership functioning and (b) differences between African American women leaders in 2 different types of work settings in their self-care strategies and use of African values based leadership styles. Related "Tips" are provided.

By BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya, PhD, and Dolores E. Mack, PhD


Historical images of African American women have portrayed their strategies for successful coping in multiple ways (West, 1995); however, there is a paucity of research on the degree to which self-care differences exists among Black women in diverse high stress leadership positions. Part of the complexity is because researchers have barely formulated clear ideas about female leadership, in general, and have marginalized the contributions of Black women leaders, in particular (Hall, Garrett-Akinsanya, Hucles, 2007). Mack and Garrett-Akinsanya have conducted research projects that focused upon the roles of African American women as leaders in the workplace. The first study focused on African American women as leaders (directors) in the contexts of university and college counseling center settings. The second study examined the self-care strategies of successful African American female leaders at university counseling centers and in non-counseling center professions (corporate, law, education, non-profits) based on African centered, value-based leadership styles.

In both studies participants were asked to rate the influence of their race/ethnicity and their gender on eleven aspects of leadership functioning. Additionally, they were asked to rate themselves on seven coping strategies (social, spiritual, vocational, intellectual, emotional, cultural, and physical) in terms of frequency of use and effectiveness. The second study incorporated taped interviews and an extra question about advice to future Black women leaders.

Study 1: Racial and Gender Differences Among Counseling Center Directors

In the first study, participants were male and female (European American and African American). Results suggested that women (in general) felt that their gender gave them a slight edge in acting as mentors for staff, improving the office climate, and providing direct services. Men, on the other hand, felt that their gender was a positive influence in providing campus leadership and marketing counseling center services to customers and funding sources.

With respect to racial differences, European Americans did not see their race/ethnicity as a positive factor in their function as counseling center directors. On the other hand, the African Americans in general, saw their ethnicity as a slightly positive factor in the delivery of direct services and their opportunities for career advancement. African American females, as a group, reported that their gender had a more negative impact on their role in staff development and mentoring staff than African American males, while European American females reported that their gender had a more positive effect in these two areas than European American males.

With respect to coping strategies, race was a more significant factor than gender in that African Americans were more likely to use spiritual (AM=6.000, EM=3.667, p<.01) and cultural (AM=4.182, EM=2.889, p<.02) means than European Americans. Furthermore, African Americans were more likely to rank spiritual (prayer, meditation) strategies as their most effective coping method (AM=6.273, EM=3.200, p<.0001) while European Americans ranked emotional strategies (self-help books, therapy, crying) as their most effective strategy (AM=2.750, EM=4.688, p<.01).

Study 2: Self-Care Strategies and African Values of African American Women in Differing Work Settings

In the second study, Garrett-Akinsanya explored the within group differences of African American women in terms of their self-care strategies in different contexts (counseling centers versus other work environments) of high-stress leadership. The study revealed that the Spiritual domain was among the most used self-care strategy; however, independent samples t-tests suggested differences between African American female counseling center directors and non-counseling center professionals in terms of their uses of the Social Domain t(19)=3.1, p< .01, with African American females in non-counseling center positions relying much more on social support than spirituality as a mechanism for coping. Thus, Study Two not only examined the wellness strategies noted in Study One, but also looked at the roles that African consciousness and values play in the leadership styles of Black women.

Azibo, (1996) identifies one of the most significant components of African-American mental health as being cultural identity. Within the context of cultural identity lies the concept of African self-consciousness and the affiliated values of that mindset. Baldwin (1985) proposed that African self-consciousness is the organizing principle of the African personality. Thus, an African-American woman who displays a positive African self-consciousness will most likely display values and behaviors that promote survival of herself and her people (Kambon, 1992) as well as a connectedness with others. These seven values were first noted as part of the Nguzo Saba (Maulana Karenga, 1966). Women in this study were asked if they endorsed African values of spirituality through faith (Imani), unity (Umoja), collective work and responsibility (Ujima), creativity (Kuumba) self-determination (Kujichgulia), cooperative economics (Ujamma), and purpose (Nia). In addition to these traditionally listed values, the second study included the values of respect (Murua), and common sense (Busura).

Results from the second study demonstrated that even among African-American female leaders, differences exist as to how and under which circumstances they may choose to use specific types of African centered values to inform their leadership styles. For example, African-American women who were in corporate settings tended to rely more readily on common sense, respect and faith. On the other hand, individuals in counseling settings tended to exemplify greater tendencies toward self-determination, common-sense, collective work and respect as core values in the work place.

Results of independent samples t-tests suggests that the differences between the group means are significant in terms of their uses of Faith t(17)=2.2, p< .04; Purpose, t(18)=2.9, p< .01; and Common Sense, t(18)=2.6, p< .01. The difference between the two groups also approached significant difference in terms of their reliance on Creativity, t(18)=2.0, p< .05 as a frequently used African-centered value. The most powerful aspect of Study Two came from the narratives of the women interviewed in response to the question about what advice they would give to other African American female leaders. This data produced what the author refers to as the "10 Easy Too Legit Tips" for success. These tips will be featured in an upcoming book by the authors entitled: Too Legit to Quit: Strategies of Successful Black Women and include recommendations to develop opportunity seizing skills by being focused, spiritually grounded, anticipatory, growth-oriented, courageous, strategic, flexible, positive, developing corporate awareness, and staying culturally grounded.


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Hall, R., Garrett-Akinsanya, B., Hucles, M. (2007) Voices of Black Feminist Leaders: Making Spaces for Ourselves. In. J. L. Chin, B. Lott, J. K. Rice, & J. Sanchez-Hucles (Eds), Women and Leadership: Transforming Visions and Diverse Voices. Malen, MA: Blackwell Publishing,

Kambon, K. K. (1992). The African personality in America: An African-centered framework. Tallahassee, Fl: Nubian Nation Publications.

Karenga, M (1990). An introduction to the African Self-Consciousness Scale. In R. L. Jones (Ed.), Handbook of tests and measurements for research on Black populations (pp. 207-215). Berkeley, CA: Cob & Henry.

West, C.M. (1995). "Mammy, sapphire, and jezebel: historical images of Black women and their implications for psychotherapy." Psychotherapy, 32 (3), 458-466.