Visualizing Leadership

Sometimes, I like to think that I have enough imagination that I don’t need my leaders to look like me. I  think that I don’t need to be “pandered to” when I come across some events that are specifically designed to cater to one or more of my identity markers. I resist the idea that I need a narrow vision of a leader to identify with. In the last few weeks, I have had the privilege of hearing from leaders who have reminded me of the power of seeing Someone Like You Do Something Like That.

I was reminded that it isn’t a lack of imagination that makes it seem so vital to hear the voices of different leaders than we’re used to. It isn’t a failing if I don’t relate as much to the leadership stories of cis men who have found success in their passions or careers. I can relate to a lot of people, but I don’t need to feel guilty about the empowerment I feel when I hear from someone a little more like me.

The leaders I was hearing from were women, but they differed in their heritage, history and passions. I heard from a panel of leaders in health care who have climbed a career ladder to get to jobs I wouldn’t necessarily even aspire to. I heard Melissa Harris-Perry and bell hooks speak at the New School online, often about experiences I had little reference for (video below). I heard from entrepreneurs and professionals and communications strategists at a conference I normally wouldn’t attend. Still, I walked away from listening to these different women feeling more confident in my own path, however different.

Anyone whose face is less represented in the media than they are in real life – people of colour/women/queer people/non-binary folks/fat people/people with disabilities/and on – is forced to learn to identify with someone else in order to tap into stories. We are asked to imagine what it would be like to be somebody else constantly. Asked to relate to the decisions made by those in a position we might never be in. I think this is a vital skill for all, encouraging empathy and a radical imagination, but it can also be exhausting. Is it any wonder that we crave hearing from people a little closer to our own starting point? Everyone is an individual, but hearing from someone who keeps my concerns closer to their heart offers a narrative intimacy that feels more rare than it should be. Decreasing the number of steps I have to walk to get into their shoes feels like such a luxury still. Hearing all of these women, I find different assumptions being made, different rationalizations, different emotions, and it feels like they open up my own options. I feel braver for hearing them.

Representation can nourish something that you don’t realize needs attention, sometimes. Seeing something of yourself mirrored back in stories of accomplishment and struggle and passion can be powerful. It isn’t a weakness to want to see that leadership comes in millions of forms and strategies, including someone like you.