Leading through impossible times – looking for new models

Amid the turmoil of a global pandemic, a deepening economic crisis, and a growing global awareness of the impacts of white supremacy, the challenges of becoming an organizational or community leader may seem insurmountable. Yet there is a pressing need for collaborative, adaptive leaders who can work across systems to navigate disruption and uncertainty.

A free webinar offered by the Simon Fraser University (SFU) Leadership Essentials program on Dec. 11 from 12 to 1 p.m. will explore the significant issues facing new and emerging leaders in these complex times. The new program aims to redefine and reimagine leadership by offering practical and applied ways for participants to create change within entrenched systems to build equitable and inclusive organizational cultures.

“The purpose of Leadership Essentials is to address systemic inequities and find ways to dismantle harmful structures, so that we can create thriving organizations,” says Melanie Matining, consultant at Elevate Inclusion Strategies and one of the webinar panellists. “It’s a steppingstone for anyone who aspires to leadership within their organization or community group.”

Letting go of the past

Traditional forms of leadership tend to be hierarchical, relying on a model of a charismatic leader showing the way forward, or on colonial ways of thinking that encourage a divide-and-conquer mentality.

Melanie Matining, consultant at Elevate Inclusion Strategies. | Photo courtesy of Melanie Matining

Shanthi Besso, director of Leadership & Community Building Programs in Lifelong Learning at SFU, thinks these historical modes of leadership are outdated and ineffective in today’s world. “It’s just so clear that what we’ve been doing has not been working for the vast majority of people,” she says. “We’re trying to shift leadership away from reliance on positional authority to look for new ways forward, and really dig into what it means to create a just and equitable workplace.”

Matining notes that people often think that equity, diversity, and inclusion only impacts people who are marginalized. “But that’s actually a myth,” she says. “The reality is that everyone benefits.”

Yet the benefits are often difficult for people to see because inequitable systems are so deeply ingrained in society and western culture. “And then it seems impossible [to change] because so much of what we understand about the world has made us feel that inequities are normalized,” she says.

Getting comfortable with change

For both Besso and Matining, transformative change is required to create workplaces that meet the needs of everyone in them. But when change challenges the status quo on this scale, it can feel threatening and risky.

“I see in a lot of workplaces a fear around change. There’s so much change we’re dealing with anyway, people are at their limit in terms of their capacity to take risk,” says Besso. “But right now, we need to get supremely comfortable with change.”

Besso counsels individuals to think carefully about the ways organizations are holding inequitable systems in place. “What can we let go of, and what wonderful opportunities are we missing by sticking with the status quo?” she asks.

Matining agrees that the scale of needed change can sometimes be overwhelming, especially as a new leader. “We understand that there sometimes is a limit to the kind of change you can create within an organization, just given the fact that as an emerging leader you aren’t going to have access to the highest amount of organizational power,” she says.

Making the impossible possible

But Besso urges both individuals and organizations to address issues of power and privilege as the expectations for more equitable workplaces grow. “If these issues are not impacting you yet, they will, because this is where we are now,” she advises. “The people who don’t have some understanding of the roots of the problem, and how to respond, risk being left behind.”

Matining further maintains that the process of creating equity, diversity, and inclusion not only strengthens leaders, but organizations and communities as well. “When we create safer spaces for each other, in a place where we feel decency and agency, it gives power to everything we do,” she says.

Register for the webinar Leading Through Impossible Times at www.eventbrite.ca/e/leading-through-impossible-times-registration-128293785165,

For more information on the SFU Leadership Essentials program, go to: www.sfu.ca/continuing-studies/programs-and-courses/area-of-study/leadership/leadership-essentials.html