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Typically, when we talk about leaders, we describe people who are in formal positions of power, or "prescribed leaders." These leaders - presidents, CEOs, coaches or captains, for example - are integral in guiding their teams or companies in fulfilling their missions. But to only think of leaders as those with an official title offers a narrow view of how leadership can be defined. If we instead define leadership as simply, “the ability to influence others in the pursuit of a goal,” then leaders don't need titles to lead, and can emerge given their actions and our relationships with them. Athletes, at all levels, typically fall into this category of leadership. They can be role models to others in their families, schools and communities, and can serve as peer mentors in areas where they have knowledge and experience. If equipped with the right tools, athletes can serve as leaders for important causes, such as racial equity, inclusion, and social justice.

"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader." — President John Quincy Adams

RISE Perspectives

Leaders Create Safe Spaces for Others to Flourish

By Dr. Collin Williams

My perspective on leadership was changed by a racial incident that happened to me in high school.

After taunting me in front of our peers, a classmate told me that if I were to punch him in retaliation, I would definitely be working at McDonald’s in 10 years. As the low-income Black scholarship student at an affluent, predominantly white, private school, the truth in his statement was painful, but that moment caused me to act.

I got involved in our affinity group to support students of color. I attended national diversity and leadership conferences to gain knowledge and develop the necessary skills to talk about issues of racism. And then, I co-created our high school’s first diversity club using uncomfortable conversation to create a more comfortable community.

RISE Senior Director, Curriculum, Dr. Collin Williams.

Back then, I didn't view that as leadership. I wasn't student body president or captain of the basketball team, so how could I be a leader?

I've come to realize that leadership can exist in many forms, and the key to being an effective leader for everyone is creating an inclusive culture and practicing inclusive leadership.

Imagine being tasked with putting together a cohesive team from a diverse group of people -- people of varying ages and genders, with different backgrounds from different parts of the world.

Your team has little experience working with others who may look, act or think differently from them, but you're still expected to perform at the highest level. How do you succeed? How do you create a team culture that allows everyone to feel comfortable and able to contribute, despite their differences, so that you can achieve your collective goals?

This is the challenge that many companies and campuses face on a daily basis.

The answer is creating an inclusive culture. Inclusive cultures involve and empower their constituents, promote and sustain a sense of belonging, and value and respect the talents, beliefs, and backgrounds of their members.

Because inclusive cultures allow people feel safe, they can focus on their primary goals. As a result, inclusive cultures often foster enhanced performance, engagement, attendance, collaboration, and innovation. So, how do we create these safe, inclusive cultures?

Creating inclusive cultures requires developing inclusive leaders —or leaders that assure all team members feel they are valued, are treated respectfully and fairly, have a sense of belonging, and are confident and inspired. Bourke and Espedido (2019) identified the following six traits and behaviors to distinguish inclusive leaders from others:

  • Visible commitment: They articulate authentic commitment to diversity, challenge the status quo, hold others accountable and make diversity and inclusion a personal priority.
  • Awareness of bias: They share their journey of recognizing and addressing personal blind spots and biases as well as flaws in the system and work hard to ensure meritocracy.
  • Humility: They are modest about capabilities, ask questions, admit mistakes, and create the space for others to contribute. By sharing personal weaknesses and addressing biases, they put others at ease and enable them to share feedback and voice opinions.
  • Curiosity about others: They demonstrate an open mindset and deep curiosity about others, listen without judgment, and seek to understand others’ viewpoints. They use empathy and perspective taking to establish personal connections and make it easier to make and implement shared decisions.
  • Cultural intelligence: They are attentive to others’ cultures and adapt as required. They take time to learn peers’ cultural pillars and expressions, leaving them feeling heard.
  • Effective collaboration: They empower others, pay attention to diversity of thinking and psychological safety, and focus on team cohesion.

The RISE glossary explains that leadership often refers to anyone who holds a formal position of power. But in our work, leadership is defined as actions that inspire others around a goal, cause or people who need assistance. Therefore, anyone can be a leader because anyone can act and inspire, regardless of an official title, role or position. The above quote by President John Quincy Adams says it well: ”If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

Because inclusive cultures inherently allow people to do and become more, the people that create those spaces are therefore leaders. All this to say, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, we could and should all be leaders.

What I experienced in my high school was something I believed no other student should have to face. I took it upon myself to make our community safer for people on the margins of wealth and whiteness.

As I was applying to colleges and focusing on my grades, AP classes, and a myriad of church-related and other extracurricular activities, it took a trusted advisor to persuade me to write my college essay on, “this other stuff,” I was doing to help create a more inclusive culture at my school. Still, it did not fully hit me until I got accepted early admission by my top choice university with more than half of my tuition covered by a leadership scholarship.

Admittedly, it took growth for me to recognize leadership was not about all the titles and roles I accumulated as a stand-out student and congregation member, but about how I used my resources to empower others.

That's what we do at RISE. We know that athletes and coaches at all levels - youth, high school, college and professional - can act as leaders in their own communities. By inspiring them to be leaders for racial equity and inclusion, they can help foster this inclusive culture, and inspire others to practice inclusive leadership wherever they might have an opportunity to influence others.

Dr. Collin Williams is RISE's Senior Director, Curriculum.

What does it take to be an effective leader?

Charles Grantham

Former Executive Director, NBPA

Hear Charles Grantham's full interview on Champions of Change: The RISE Podcast

General George Casey

Former U.S. Army Chief of Staff (retired)

Hear General Casey's full interview on Champions of Change: The RISE Podcast

NHL Senior Executive Vice President Kim Davis and Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson

Hear about the importance of inclusive leadership.

Step up to the Leadership Plate

How can you act as a leader to help create a more inclusive community?

Step up to the Leadership Plate. Download the graphic to the right, complete it and share on social media to demonstrate how you are a leader and can inspire others.

Tag us @RISEtoWIN with the #LearnToRISE.

Learn More to Do More

Check out this activity on Understanding Power from RISE's curriculum. Power, like leadership, does not always come with an official title. In our own way, we each have the power and ability to influence others. Reflect on how you can use your individual power to be a leader for creating an inclusive culture and advancing racial equity.

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