In leadership when you know better, you do better!

Photo by Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash

Recently, I quit a job where my boss had conveniently not extended my contract as was promised. As a result, I could not claim my pay for the last 2 months I had worked. When confronted, he blamed the error on the bureaucracy above, given it was a large public hospital. He also found several ways to avoid the discussion and eventually ceased all forms of communication with me. The principle of the matter more than anything else made me query this odd series of events with my boss via email. Surprisingly, I was met with avoidance.

Upon reflecting on the incident as a whole initially, I didn’t make much of it. Just another workplace incident handled poorly by supposed leaders — just another aggrieved employee in the big smoke per se. Another example of a leader lacking effective communication. But as I thought more about the series of events and applied context, something ugly reared its head at me. A phenomenon that has been around forever, yet been talked about more recently than ever. The concept of privilege!

I am a health worker. In my time, I have worked both in the public and private sectors. By the nature of the work I do, I think a lot about privilege. But the process of accepting my own privilege has not been an easy one. Acknowledging and critiquing it is something that I still struggle with. The benefits afforded to me and consequently to my children are something I gawk at; ashamedly so. But it is a learning process, and certainly one day I know I will be comfortable with the advantages I have and pay it forward gracefully.

Reflecting on privilege is a challenge, a constant mental exercise. These days it really has become part of my own daily consciousness. Yet it remains a challenging concept to deal with. I am routinely questioning my own position in society and the world at large; attempting to make sense of the power imbalances I am a part of.

As an immigrant in a relatively young country, I have been at the receiving end of privilege many a time — mostly in the years after my family migrated here. Like scores of immigrants, I assimilated and have been accepted, but it has been a journey. But these are the costs when one invests themselves amidst cultures in new lands. For me, my most recent experience was unique. A position I had seen other colleagues in, but never experienced.

Traditionally, the word privilege has focussed on the inherent advantages, and immunity people have to owe to aspects of their identity. But in the real world, providing access to opportunities by people who have this power, to those that don’t, is often forgotten truth. Many leaders reflect the privilege they hold by harbouring it to their own advantage. Leadership is about what one does with the benefits they have.

By not acknowledging the power, a position affords a leader, one can erode the possibilities of their own leadership. Leadership brings an individual the opportunity to take a stance — regardless of the words they may speak or actions they may take. In a position of leadership, one silently takes on the responsibility for others experiences. Folks that are led by influential leaders grow. Under poor leadership, the best talent is thwarted, leaving people disillusioned.

So in my case, I only wish my boss realised the systemic privilege he was forging in his role and the benefits he derived and continues to, as a leader. That his actions create a significant impact on others that look up to his leadership. Maya Angelou once said: when you know better, you do better”.

It is tough to firstly identify and own one’s privilege as a leader. I know this because like all of us, I too am a leader and in a state of privilege daily. But when we name and own our privilege, we begin to create cultures of freedom and growth-within and outside. By asking ourselves and each other to question the power we hold, we start to dig deep. We have real conversations with each other — in personal and professional spheres. We begin to use our roles for the world at large and embrace change for the better.

So here’s what I learnt about my own leadership from this little incident:

  1. To identify the role I hold — By intentionally thinking about what I say and do to those that look towards me for leadership, I actively become mindful of my own privilege.
  2. Turn power to forge pathways — Identifying and recognising my own privilege is to realise the access I have to opportunities. But more so this is an opportunity to enable others access to more.
  3. There is no need to apologise for being in a role of power — People look up to leaders and understand the work it has taken them to get there. (thoughts on success, meritocracy and luck is another topic close to my heart but that is for another day!) But a simple acknowledgement of others struggles and issues in a realistic and empathetic manner by keeping the channels of communication open will go a long way in making workplaces inclusive and equitable.

At the end of it, all leadership is an evolution like all else. Great leaders are not made in a day. They mature with their role and grow into it. Because, “when you know better, you do better”.

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Human, Dad, Husband, Overthinker

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Venkatesh Bhardwaj

Venkatesh Bhardwaj

Human, Dad, Husband, Overthinker

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