A person in a purple top and black pants throws fake snow into the air jubilantly above themselves in the foreground. In the background are festive tree and plant shaped decorations with soft white lights, illuminated against a dark backdrop.

Silent Cheerleaders

An often-overlooked aspect of how leaders can help or hinder their goals for greater diversity, equity and psychological safety in their organizations, particularly in an era of organization diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI, also known as EDII which includes indigenization, or DEB, which includes belonging, JEDI, and other similar acronyms).

It takes great courage

It takes immense courage for amazing, progressive leaders who have privilege to speak up and actively create meaningful anti-oppressive change in their areas of their organizations.

Here, I am referring to leaders who have privilege, in that, their attributes that they did not earn in society have afforded them opportunities, benefits and other supports that those without those attributes are not.

And truly I have so much respect for those progressive folks who do speak up in their organization.

Our brains as humans have not evolved as fast as our technologies, societies or economies, so it really does take huge courage for these powerful leaders (and they are powerful, regardless of their leadership level) to drive progressive change.

It’s also good that these progressive folks themselves have vocal cheerleaders to encourage them to keep up the important work. These folks will often receive accolades at best, or no difference in treatment at worst, for this work.

What about leaders with less privilege who are also fighting the good fight?

I think there are cheerleaders of diverse “othered” people who lead progressive change in many workplaces…

But…have you noticed that these cheerleaders are often silent (which doesn’t make for great cheering by the way – can you imagine cheerleaders at a football game running back into the dressing room whenever their team scores?? I have yet to see that happen at any CFL game I’ve watched!!).

In all seriousness…for as much courage as it takes progressive, more privileged leaders – let’s pause and consider how much more courage it requires of those with less societal power to speak up.

We’re the folks who need that much more encouragement and that much more support and sponsorship.

And yet, so often, when we are in the workplace delivering on that same new paradigm of leadership and taking our pledges to antiracism, etc. seriously, our cheerleaders all run back to the dressing room.

We sometimes find out that we have silent cheerleaders. Which is great in some ways…and hey, we often understand that fellow less privileged folks don’t want to be labelled as “difficult” or “negative” or “confrontational” or whatever other minimizing/gaslighting label is applied to those pushing for necessary change.

So here is my encouragement to a few groups of folks:

To those with more privilege and power who actively use your power, expression, choices and disproportionate impact to drive progressive change:

Thank you for your courageous leadership. Please keep going.

We need you to keep pushing, because many of us continue to be left behind or undermined, and it’s not always obvious from a superficial glance.

Thank you for your courage.

To those with less or low privilege who are fighting the good fight

Keep going and keep supporting those around you who are pushing. We get there together. 

Yet also, don’t be a martyr. If an organization’s systemic oppression is too strong and deep, and you’re not finding people you know are true allies, it’s okay to look elsewhere, if you feel safe to do so.

If you decide to find another place to be all that you are, know that you’re not a failure, you’re not giving up. You’re honouring your life and wellbeing and yes you can!

For those on the higher end of privilege but who, to this point, may feel too scared or too distracted by pressures and deliverables to drive meaningful change beyond your organization’s box-checking

You don’t need to be perfect to make a positive difference.

If you start with something simple like I recommend in my article here, you will be able to use what power you do have for good. 

And when things are better for people who are othered, things are actually better for everyone.

In summary

Things can be better, but they won’t magically improve without each of us doing something to make it better. I would encourage you to ask yourself to notice one tangible thing you can do to support someone in your network in making a positive difference?

Also, yes, I know the photo is a bit festive, but it’s the closest image I have of exuberant cheerleading, which is what I’m hoping to inspire!

Have you ever found out you had silent cheerleaders? Did you have vocal cheerleaders? Did it make a difference to have vocal cheerleaders?

Thanks for being here and engaging in these leadership topics!

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