Ethnic Minority Leadership

Ethnic Minority Leadership

Discusses the types of leadership exemplified by President Obama (e.g., servant leader, coalition builder/boundary spanner, multicultural leader) and related implications for future ethnic minority and other leaders (e.g. increased emphasis on the diversity of one's experience other than its length).

By Jimmy Davis, PhD, and Kecia M. Thomas, PhD

Minority Leadership

The election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of The United States was the pinnacle event for some African Americans as a sign that racial equality had finally been reached. For others, the election of President Obama was a sign that there has been a shift regarding who and what leadership looks like. As we look at the President Obama election as the tipping point for leadership, we can examine how his election builds upon previous models of leadership and presents new avenues for leading in the future.

The most visible models of ethnic minority leadership have come out of movements for civil rights and equality. Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, El Malik Shabazz (Malcolm X), and Cesar Chavez (Mexican American migrant advocate and former leader of the United Farm Workers), most easily come to mind. The political arena has brought Americans numerous examples of Black leadership that have crossed gender lines through female models such as Shirley Chisholm (first Black female congressperson and former candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination) and Carol Moseley-Braun (first Black female senator), Alexis Herman (first African American to chair the Department of Labor), and Condoleezza Rice (former Secretary of State). The more recent models of ethnic leadership have frequently come from business and have included Ken Chennault (chairman and chief executive office of American Express), Ann Fudge (former president of Kraft General Foods' Maxwell House Coffee Company and Kraft's Beverages, Desserts and Post Divisions), and Oprah Winfrey (internationally known television personality, media mogul, and philanthropist) among many others.

Currently we have new leaders who have used a mix of the models in the past to ascend to their positions of power. Other than President Obama, we are seeing the rise of people like Ursula Burns (first black female CEO of a Fortune 500 Company) and Cory Booker (Mayor of Newark, NJ) as examples of how leadership is evolving among minorities. Soon we may see that work continue with the possible confirmation of the first Latina Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor. In this article we hope to exemplify types of leadership that President Obama exemplifies that are representative of new ethnic minority leadership. Finally we hope to provide some advice on the future needs of leadership among ethnic minorities.

The New Ethnic Minority Leadership

One of the ways in which President Obama is representative of the modern ethnic minority leader is that like previous Black leaders (e.g. MLK) he is a servant leader. Servant leadership is one of the most popular leadership models around today. The concept was developed by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970. The servant leader serves the people he/she leads, which implies that they (the people's needs) are an end in themselves rather than a means to an organizational purpose or bottom line. Servant oriented leadership was made popular with the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. President Obama has demonstrated his ability to embrace this leadership style early in his career with his work as a community organizer. He continued to use the community and a sense of purpose beyond himself as he orchestrated one of the most inclusive and expansive presidential campaigns in the history of the United States of America. President Obama's message is about the people and it's their goals he is trying to reach and solve for a collective good. Although President Obama has successfully used this style and continues to do so, this is not the only leadership style he has employed in his work and leveraged from successful styles from the past.

Another important aspect of President Obama's leadership style reflects his identity as a coalition builder and boundary spanner. A coalition is defined as a temporary partnering of groups aligned for a similar purpose. Many will argue that his ability to be elected and run the government is dependent upon his ability to be non-partisan and span traditional boundaries and build coalitions among diverse groups to accomplish a desired goal. This is exemplified by President Obama's achievements to date ranging from the campaign trail where he was able to gain support from both traditional Republicans such as General Colin Powell, to the architecture of one of the most diverse White House cabinets. This style of leadership proves to be successful because of the ability to align goals on similarities rather than differences. Coalition building as a skill will continue to be useful for minority leaders as they can rally peers, subordinates and people in positions of power around common goals.

President's Obama leadership is also reflective of multicultural leadership. In fact, his multiracial and international background has enabled him to reach out to his global constituencies in ways that perhaps no other President has been able. The diversity of his ethnicities, his economic and family background, as well as his life and studies abroad provide various avenues for the population, indeed the world, to connect with him. Rather than exemplify a select economic, academic, and family background with which an increasingly few Americans can identify, President Obama's history reflects an identity to which a growing number of Americans and non-Americans can connect. His own understanding of "self" enables him to relate to diverse Americans in a manner that is non-threatening as well as authentic.

Leaders of the Future

So what do the leadership styles employed by President Obama tell us about the future of ethnic minority leadership, and leadership in general? The exciting lesson in this era of leadership is that many barriers and boundaries are being broken. New leaders appear less hindered by their predecessors and are finding ways to be effective leaders without being duplicates of those who came before them. Certainly, building coalitions and spanning boundaries will be leadership skills that can span across disciplines and sectors. The ability to shift among different leadership styles will allow new leaders to build relationships and skills beyond their content and technical expertise in their respective disciplines. We look forward to watching how President Obama and others pull women, sexual minorities, and other overlooked groups into their leadership teams. We look at the appointment of Ursula Burns as a phenomenal example of a technical and content expert who also has the ability to span boundaries and build coalitions within her work world to support her success.

Another concept that President Obama's election allows us to address is the notion of age and experience as critical elements of leadership success. Traditional leadership models have argued that age and experience are indicative of leadership success. President Obama, Mayor Booker, and countless other new leaders are deflating this notion that you need to have a critical number of years of experience to be successful. President Obama has shown that a respect for discipline and a keen learning agility are the more critical elements for success. The diversity of one's experience is also essential. This is a great notion for new leaders to embrace that enables them to demonstrate their ability to lead without the fear that age or years of experience will continually be questioned until they have proven otherwise. This concept is still very early in its adoption. But with the continual aging of the workforce and need for new leadership, we shall see that less emphasis will be placed on age and experience for new leaders while increased concern will center on examples of proven leadership through accomplishments in diverse contexts and other leadership qualities necessary for success.