White People Don’t Know They’re White


Jo McDermott

Before I Explain What I Mean

First, let me tell you why I’m writing about this.  This is a post about people not knowing what they don’t know.  When you don’t know what you don’t know, it really gets in the way of being effective.  If you are completely unaware of something, then you are missing out on a whole world.  If you are basing your understanding of the world on the assumption that everyone thinks like you, you CANNOT communicate effectively because you are starting from the wrong place.

Now Let Me Explain

I have to be careful how I explain this.  I told a close friend that white people don’t know that they’re white–several times–and  years later a conversation made it obvious that not only did she not understand what I meant, she didn’t believe me either.  I have always thought I was pretty aware of the issues…

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My Top 10 Blog Posts

Someone  recently asked me what my top blog posts were.  Here are the top 10 in terms of readership.  Which one do you like best?

Get a Mentor, Use a Mentor

Personal Change Management

Take Feedback, Especially Bad Feedback, as a Gift

I Am Heartbroken

Why Doesn’t Your Team Work?

White People Don’t Know They’re White

How Do You Know if You’re a Good Leader

Multiple Intelligences: IQ, EQ, SQ and other SO

Moms at Work

My Boss Doesn’t Listen to Me

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Leaders Are People Too



I know that those of you who consider yourselves leaders are not surprised that leaders are people.  Among students in my leadership classes and among my coaching clients who aspire to be leaders, however, I am frequently faced with skepticism when I make this statement.  Why is that?

First of all,  AND THIS IS IMPORTANT, leaders who are leaders because of personal power, are seen as “people.” By “people” I mean that they think, they understand, they reason, and most important, they feel.  And their followers know and believe that. It is the leaders who are “leaders” because of positional power whose “people-ness” is questioned.  (We’ll discuss whether you are ever a ‘leader’ because of position in another post.) We humans operate on assumptions and mindsets most of the time–people at the top of the organization are ‘them’ not ‘us’.  (Top of the organization is relative too–if you are above me in the organizational hierarchy, I think of you as at the ‘top.’)  If I do NOT have a relationship with you–either based on knowing you, respecting you, liking you, or needing you–then I apply all the stereotypes that I hold about organizational leaders to you.  Just as in the case of all stereotypes–if I know you, I don’t think you fit the stereotype.

I want to challenge leaders to think about what to do about this if what I say here is true.  I also want to challenge aspiring leaders to think about what to do about this if it is true that leaders are people, just like you.

For Leaders

Make sure people know you.  Leadership is relationship based.  There are lots of ways for someone to know you–they can know your expertise (and respect it), they can trust you (and know they can count on you), they can admire what you’ve been through to get to where you are–if they know it (and respect that), they can depend on you to be reliable (and respect that).  If the only relationship your followers have with you is based on your position on the org chart compared to their position on the org chart, then  what you get from them will be limited to how much you are paying attention, how much they agree with you and how scary you are.  None of those things last forever–or even for every long.

Rallying the Troops - Organization Chart

You need people to do things–the things you ask them to do–because they think they are the best things to do.  You need them to think for themselves, take initiative, be creative, stick with things, and be confident.  These are much more likely to happen if your people know that you’re a “people,” and not just a box above them on the org chart.

For Aspiring Leaders

So why does it matter that leaders think of themselves as people and all who work for them think of them as “them?”  It is lonely to be a “them” who is trying to get something done.  Did you ever think of that?  Did you ever think of what it feels like to try to do a job and to be faced with mindless obedience?  (Well, if you’re a narcissist, it probably feels pretty good–but for the rest of leaders–it’s not great.)

What about if the people who work for you treat you as trustworthy?  With respect (that you can feel)? With honesty?  With independent support?  What do you think the leader’s response to this kind of treatment from you will be?  The funny thing about trust–trusting grows trust–no matter which way it starts.

Followers have control over the relationship with their leaders too.  Acting in the role you want can gradually build that role.  Trusting can create being trusted.  Independence can earn respect.  Respect and trust are career enhancing.

Leader. Concept. 3d illustration.

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Let’s Start at the Beginning–What is Leadership?

What is Leadership?

This is the most important question in any discussion on  how to build your personal leadership skills.  It is also the most difficult to answer.  Leadership is a behavior.  Leadership is a perception.  Leadership is a process.  Leadership is a set of skills.  Leadership is a position.  All of these are true.  And all of these are inadequate to define leadership.  Most importantly, leadership is in the eye of the beholder.  What you believe about leadership shapes your belief about how leaders should behave.  What the people who behold you as a leader believe about leadership shapes what they require of you as a leader.  What is happening at the time–the circumstances–shape what is required of you as a leader.  So . . . what you believe about leadership is only one small element of what should be shaping you as a leader if you want to be an effective leader.

So How Do You Figure This Out?

You start any investigation of leadership by examining your own experience.  When you think of the best leaders you have ever known, what characteristics did they have?  What behaviors?  What knowledge? How did they make you feel?  How did they communicate with you and others.  Was there a difference?  How did they delegate?  How did they handle the big picture?  How did they handle the detail?  Were they outgoing or were they introverted?  Were they smart?  Did the people who worked for them like them?  Did they get along with their peers? Whatever your answers to these questions, chances are that is what creates your concept of a “good” leader.

Your “good” leader had some negative characteristics too, though.  What did s/he do wrong?  Or, just not right?  What were the flaws, character, career or leadership, that your ‘best’ leader had.

Now, make a similar list of characteristics, behaviors, skills, knowledge of your “worst” leaders.  Why were they such bad leaders?  What did they do wrong?  What was it that set you on edge about them?

Now—put your “honest” hat on.  For the “bad” leader to actually have a leader role, s/he must have done something right.  What were the good qualities of your “worst” leader?  If you still have your “honest” hat on, the good and bad characteristics/skills/behaviors of both the “best” leader and the “worst” leader are likely to have some overlap.  If not, go back and adjust your “honest” hat and look again.

How People Become Leaders

Combinations of skills, traits, experiences, behaviors, and circumstances come together to put people in leadership roles.  One of my favorite stories–possibly apocryphal, but it makes the point nonetheless–is that Winston Churchill was a failure as a leader until World War II came along and the English people needed Churchill’s specific combination of skills.  True?  I’m sure there is another version or two of this story.  However, there are specific circumstances that call out for specific skill sets from leaders.  A leader who is great in a steady state, leading a large stable organization is not necessarily the right leader for a small entrepreneurial organization, or vice versa.

Baking a Cake

Becoming a leader is like baking a cake from scratch–a little of this, some of that, stir it up and bake it at the right temperature for the right length of time.  Becoming a leader is a lot more complicated than that too.  Becoming a leader requires you to be a learning machine.  It requires you to evaluate yourself in a richly open and objective way.  It requires you to push yourself to have experiences and to reflect about those experiences.  It requires you to try things that don’t work and learn from them.  It requires you to learn to listen and trust and experiment.  It requires you to remain flexible throughout.  There is not a leader anointing body that picks you and says “thou art a leader.”

If you want to be a leader, then I invite you to stay tuned through this series of posts on leadership.  I invite you to challenge yourself to answer the questions and reflect on your own knowledge of leadership.  I challenge you to talk to others about leadership.  It’s up to you.

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Are You A Born Leader?

Are Leaders Born or Are They Made?

I recently had someone ask me if I believed that leaders could be created.  I actually was very surprised.  I thought everyone knew that leaders could be developed.  Haha.  Note to self:  EVERYONE doesn’t know anything.  Second note to self:  Just because you believe something, that doesn’t mean it is a fact to be known by everyone.  Third note to self:  Never, never, never forget that your “facts” aren’t everyone’s facts.

Born or Made, Other Things Are Involved

OK.  I’m done with my lectures to myself.  Let’s look at whether leaders can be developed.  First of all, I’ve spent a reasonable amount of my life teaching Leadership at the graduate level, and I’ve developed and implemented Executive Development programs.  I’ve WATCHED people grow leadership skills.  Were they born with nascent skills that became more dominant?  In other words, were they born leaders?  Maybe.  But they weren’t great leaders, and then when they were exposed to ideas, to new ways of thinking and interacting, when they practiced, they became better leaders.  In fact, frequently, they began to see themselves as leaders and began to consciously behave as leaders.

The Center for Creative Leadership, which does great research and training on leadership, recently asked C Suite leaders whether they believed that leaders are born or made.  Fifty eight percent of those asked believe, like me, that leaders are made.  Nineteen percent believe that they are born and twenty nine percent believe that it is both.  If leaders are born, then there isn’t much we can do to grow leaders.  However, if they are born with potential, then of course there are things that can be done to make them better leaders.

Let’s start with what creates a leader.  If a leader is born, then it is his/her personal characteristics and traits that makes him/her a leader.  Presumably these folks would show leadership capabilities at a very young age.  What is interesting about that, though, is that how children are judged as “leaders” is very different than how adults are judged as “leaders.”  I once participated in an effort to develop “leaders” at the middle school level.  We surveyed their teachers as to what characteristics demonstrated leadership and the results were eye-opening.  Most teachers thought that the best leaders in the class were those who behaved themselves, were quiet and did their work.  Imagine that being the criteria in an Executive Development program for a corporation.

I think most people would agree that these personal characteristics are a part of what makes a leader. The dispute is just about how much these characteristics matter.  The other things that contribute are leadership training and experiences.  The same Center for Creative Leadership  (CCL) Survey, asked both those who thought leaders  were born and those who thought leaders were grown how much these other factors played in leadership development.  Interestingly, both groups thought all played a role–they just varied in how much of a role.  Those who believed in the ‘born’ method thought that traits were  31%, learning  28%, and experiences were 38% of the development of leaders.  Those who believed in the ‘made’ method thought that traits were  20% , learning 34%, and experiences were 46% of the development of leaders.

The bottom line–whether leaders are ‘born’ or are ‘made,’ your own self development can have quite an impact on your leadership capabilities.

It’s Up to You

You can sit around and wait for your organization to “develop” you.  You can mourn the fact that you aren’t “one of the chosen high potentials” in your organization.  You can decide that you can’t afford an MBA or an Executive certificate.  OR you can get to work on developing yourself.  What do you know about leadership?  Have you read about Situational Leadership?  Have you read the Leadership Challenge? Do you know the theories of leadership? Do you understand power?  Do you know when to use which kind of power? What role does charisma have in leadership? What experiences can you add to your resume that will grow your leadership abilities?

Stay Tuned

This is the first of a series of posts focused on growing your leadership knowledge, practical knowledge, skills and confidence.


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You Talk. Do They Listen?

Depositphotos_16625249_xs (1)

I got reminded again today that just because I say it doesn’t mean they hear it.  I had been telling a colleague for several days, maybe even for a couple of weeks, that I had a report that gave her the information that she needed.  It was a report that documented a process that we are trying to improve.  She was the lead on improving this process and I had created a report that showed her exactly what she needed to monitor.  I thought I said it very clearly.  I should have noticed that I had to say it several times and every time not only did she seem disinterested, in every instance she fairly quickly changed the subject.  I also thought she looked at me as if I were stupid, but I’m probably just imagining that.

Anyway, I finally gave up.  I printed it out and left it on her desk with a note that said, “Thought you might want o see how we’re doing.”  She sent me an email before I got back to my desk, asking where the h**l I got this report.  My immediate–and fantasized reaction–was to say “I’ve been telling you that I had this report for WEEKS!”  BUT whose fault was it?  Hers because she hadn’t heard what I had said, or mine because I hadn’t gotten her attention with the information?  I was the only one who cared about the message getting through until she actually ‘heard’ it–then she cared too.  So . . . if I cared more, I think it was my responsibility (or in my interest) to figure out how to get it across.  She was blissfully ignorant.  I was enormously frustrated.

In her case, all I had to do was SHOW it to her.  I, on the other hand, get information best through hearing it.  So I (repeatedly) gave her information the way that works best for me.  I wasn’t focused on the receiver’s needs or receptiveness.  I wasn’t even thinking at all of it as a reception problem–I was simply sending the message into the universe and expecting the right recipients to receive it.  It was as if I were speaking Chinese to a French kindergarten class who wanted to hurry up and go out to play.  Ok, ok, that’s a bit exaggerated–but not much.

We know we have to speak the language of the person we’re talking to if we want our message to get through.  Using the appropriate medium and venue is equally important. Pay attention to how THEY send information–that is very likely the way they like to receive it.  If you notice that you’ve tried to ‘send’ the message more than a couple of times, try to send a different way–with pictures, or with something tactile or have someone else–their friend, or superior or someone more or less animated than you send the message.

NOTICE when the message isn’t getting across.  Then try things till it does.

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Are You A “Flat-Tire-HIPO?”

damaged flat tire

What Is A Flat-Tire-HIPO?

You know those people, those really, really talented people? Those people who REALLY get things done or those people who can spot the 2 numbers in a 20 page spreadsheet that have issues. Or those who are so incredibly charismatic or entrepreneurial or incredible presenters and can sell anything? Those people who are so special that everyone (even the ones who don’t like them) recognizes that they are HIPOs?   *A ‘HIPO’ is a high potential individual with significant ability and potential to move up the organization.* Well, it has been my experience that the most special, most talented, most capable of these HIPOs are flat tires. They are ‘round’ in all the ways that they are special, but they go ‘kathump’ as they hit that part of them, that non-round, non-perfect part of them that is flat. I know you’ve met these people—the guy who gets results . . . but leaves bodies; the person who is incredibly charismatic and people follow her anywhere . . . who can’t make a decision; the person who is charming and talks a perfect plan . . . who doesn’t actually deliver when promised. These are ‘flat-tire HIPOs.’

That Flat Tire Will Derail You

HIPOs are highly sought and cherished—as long as the organization benefits from the ways in which they are special. As long as their strength outweighs their cost. The higher up HIPOs go, however, the more likely that their deficit will begin to get in the way. The Center for Creative Leadership which does great research on Executive Development, Leadership and success factors for Executives, has identified several “derailers,” behaviors or traits that can ‘derail’ a career:

Failure to Change or Adapt During a Transition. Examples include:

  • Failure to adapt to a new boss
  • Over-dependence on a single skill and/or failure to acquire new skills
  • Inability to adapt to the demands of a new job, a new culture, or changes in the market

Problems with Interpersonal Relationships. Examples include being seen as:

  • Insensitive
  • Manipulative
  • Demanding
  • Authoritarian
  • Self-isolating
  • Aloof
  • Critical

Failure to Build and Lead a Team. Examples include:

  • Failing to staff effectively
  • Can’t manage subordinates
  • Poor leadership skills

Failure to Meet Business Objectives: Examples include:

  • Lack of follow-through
  • Too ambitious
  • Poor performance

None Of Those Apply to You, Right?

Riiiiiiiiight. Almost all of us . . . at least I’ve never met one of us it isn’t true of . . . have one or more of these. Especially HIPOs. People become HIPOs by being really good at stuff. When you’re really good at stuff, then you by definition are more focused on the stuff you’re good at than the stuff you’re not focused on. And you’re not as good, and maybe you’re pretty bad at, the stuff you’re not focused on. If you are a detail person, who really pays attention to the details and on getting things done, then it is highly likely that you’re aren’t as focused on the people side of things. You may be insensitive to those who don’t speak “detail.”

Yeah, I know, not you.

If you focus on getting results, you may be impatient. If you are ambitious, you may be TOO ambitions. There are so many combinations that are possible. And it is hard to see it in yourself. You need to listen to feedback. CLOSELY. It may be between the lines. When you are a HIPO, then the organization will appreciate you for as long as you aren’t hitting the “flat” part. That can be years. Eventually, though, your flat part will hit at the wrong time or with the wrong person and you will be out. UNLESS you start paying attention and learn to inflate those parts.

OK, I’ve take this metaphor far enough. What do you do?

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