What more can be said about the blockbuster movie Black Panther, which has clawed through the veil of exclusion and has captivated its audience with its emergence and majestic moves on big screen. Well I am going to give it a try. And this is not for the sake of the need to add another remix of thoughts and insights gleaned from the film. However, I would like to advance the conversation in the context of business, as a microcosm of society, where most of our waking hours are spent.
I will be comparing the contemporary, organizational leadership and hierarchy to the countercultural message of leadership from Black women in the Black Panther. One of the striking things about the Black Panther, in this historically-fiction land of Wakanda, is the deconstruction of effective leadership to be neither just male and nor just white. There is a strong emphasis of Black females in meaningful leadership roles from Okoye, the king’s general to Nukea, the international spy to Shuri, the intellectual, warrior princess. It’s Shuri, the heroic imagery of an intellectual, warrior princess, who I would like to focus on to support this counter-narrative message and theme.
Creation of a New Princess Image
To use the term intellectual princess is by design because the word princess is fraught with the stereotype of beauty without brains and brawn. In most films the princesses are rarely geniuses and rarely are willing to get into the octagon or ring to rough it out. But Shuri did! (I would offer that an intellectual warrior is a juxtaposition of contradiction.) Many fell in love with her character especially Black women. (See New York Times article by Reggie Egwu, Did You Watch ‘Black Panther’? Let’s Talk Spoilers.) There was a sense of romanticism as if these qualities were long lost treasures of a distant time. The truth of the matter, however, is that these qualities in many professional Black women in corporate circles have been always present. But many non-Black leaders (and not just White) have ignored them or have feared them.
When I say ignored, I mean their ideas are not taken seriously because they are not viewed as smart enough to advance into greater leadership. When I say feared, their words are taken to be threatening or destructive, and not passionate and constructive to the workplace conversation. Really their incisive words coupled with their expressive body language are routinely misunderstood, because of latent fears and prideful biases. I suggest however the language (verbal and non-verbal) should be like the Brazilian martial art of Capoeira where actions of dancers may look like strikes to hurt and scare, but really are strikes to dance and cleverly challenge each other. The interpretation of a Capoeira competition/dance be producing a win-win for both contestants and not a zero-sum outcome. The community of onlookers benefits from this exchange as they incorporate the rhythm of engagement in their own subcultures.
I believe that is the intellectual, warrior mastery that we see in the film with the win-win relationship between Princess Shuri and the CIA agent, Everett Ross. This is Shuri’s heart and desire when she pokes fun and challenges Agent Ross to stretch himself and see Black women in a different light as an equal partner in the business of saving the world. We see this intellectual, warrior mastery come to a head as an apex of this countercultural message where this young, Black female was leading, instructing and guiding this older, white male into battle. Let’s pause for a second and feel the magnitude of the moment. I don’t know about you, but this represents paradigm shifting. For each quality: young, female and Black, are historically a knock not to lead. Yet Ryan Coolger, the director, provides us with an unseen world where Black women are given access to the throne room of Eurocentric leadership. Hidden Figures no more but women like Shuri are ready to lead and fight the good fight.
Now the term warrior may seem to be much for some but think about every company that says we’re number one in an emphatic roar of beating of the chest. Think of all the company-wide rallies that major companies throw like Google, Apple, Amazon, and Walmart to name some. It implies someone else is number two (2) and the company will fight to remain number one (1). These aren’t just your regular, humdrum meetings, but these gatherings are held in packed arenas and stadiums akin to ancient Roman coliseums to muster a battle cry to fight for marketplace supremacy while slaying their competition in folding. That attitude takes a warrior spirit. This is the same kind of spirit that Shuri and other Black women like her possess but not taken serious because of her race.
The Royal Snub & Passover
What do I mean by not being taken seriously? Well, would any venture capitalist like the ones in Silicon Valley invest in the talent of this kind of a professional? Most likely not! (See former CNN anchor, Soledad O’Brien’s work: Black in America: The New Promised Land – Silicon Valley) Would any non-Black person go into partnership with her? Probably not! Would anyone from Silicon Valley or any tech company hire her? Yes, but only when they have exhausted all other talent or feel the guilt of being non-diverse in their organization as compared to their peers and competition. What about that boardroom? Would you follow her lead to go into battle to develop the next new cutting-edge software, platform, car, derivative, service, policy etc.? Maybe—but only if she has gone above and beyond board to sell you its merits!
In a 2015 Fortune.com article, writer Valerie Purdie-Vaughan quotes authors, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder/CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, and Tai Green, the organization’s Vice President of Communications. “Black women who are ready to lead—whose qualifications, track record, drive, and commitment make them ideal candidates for executive roles—stick firmly to the marzipan layer, in sight of the C-suite, but seemingly not in the sights of those who occupy it,” (Black Women Leadership Study by Fortune.com)
For many company leaders, many of whom are racially White, this preconception and bias has blinded them to this talent all around them in their organizations. The false and stereotypical narratives have misled these businesses and leaders to create Hidden Figures of talent in their business story. Purdie-Vaughan attests and recalls a common situation shared by Yvette Miley, senior vice president and executive editor of MSNBC who said, “During editorial meetings in the ‘90s, I noticed that sometimes if I were to say, ‘Let’s do A,’ the room would continue in its discussion. I’d hear that idea of mine coming out of someone else’s mouth. And then the room would hear it, understand it, and get behind it”. A report by the Center for Talent Innovation shared 26% of Black women felt their talent were not recognized by their managers compared to 16% White women. Author Sylvia Ann Hewlett and company wrote in their Harvard Business Review article, Leadership in Your Midst: Tapping the Hidden Strengths of Minority Executives:
“Why aren’t companies more attuned to the untapped leadership in their ranks? First, because they haven’t looked for it. Traditionally, to the extent that management takes an interest in employees’ “extracurricular” lives, the focus has been on activities that have long been sanctioned by white male executives and are thought to burnish a company’s image or enhance client relationships: United Way drives, symphony orchestra sponsorships, and sporting events, for example. Most companies do not bother to note the kind of pursuit that Stephanie, a bright, young African-American manager we interviewed, is involved in: running an award-winning Girl Scout troop in a homeless shelter.”
Next Steps toward Dignity
How do we improve the end of this tragic story, which for many women of color is not a fairy tale but a nightmare? Is the answer a shining white knight to riding in to save the day for the princess? Not quite. I think the simple answer is less rushing to bring in the Calvary but more listening, for example, over a cup a coffee. This will help leaders of businesses and organization to see Shuri as not an invisible anomaly but a visible quality in their firms. This quality of talent has been all around their company, but they were not aware or really considered looking for them. It takes a cup of coffee and a bread of openness to hear the stories of skillful and compassionate warriors in the workplace who have remained invisible like the citizens of Wakanda. For the truth is, many Black women in the workplace recognize they must work several times harder than their (White) peers in their area of craft just to reach parity and maybe, just maybe—get noticed.
So, getting noticed by the powers-that-be has become paramount in building career mobility and career velocity (my term to describe the pace of career movement). Many Black women now have a collective recognition that leadership exposure increases visibility and upward mobility. (The age-old, philosophical question of if a tree falls without anyone to hear it, does not equate the circumstances of the female Black professional. It is more like does the falling tree, make a sound is what I’m getting at.) Hewlett concurs with this necessary inner posture, “These lives remain invisible largely by choice. For many reasons, minority professionals are reluctant to speak of their outside pursuits and accomplishments to colleagues and managers. We are left with a dual challenge: Companies can’t leverage what they don’t see—and they can’t see what is purposely concealed.” Katherine W. Phillips and company mentioned the same in their Harvard Business Review piece called Diversity and Authenticity, “Opening yourself to others requires risk taking and trust, but without it employees are less likely to build the deeper relationships that lead both to success and to more happiness at work.”
However, I readily acknowledge it takes two to tango, and leaders must be willing to engage with the willing. It is acknowledged that Black women must take some risk and be forward with their leaders and say, “Hi Joe! This is what I can bring to the table for greater corporate profits. I’d like some time to sit with you to hear.” “Jill, I think we really need time to discuss what I bring to this organization for you may not be aware. Can we a grab a coffee soon?” Once the royal invitation is sent, both Joe and Jill must show up as servant leaders.
Royal Engagement—Showing H.E.A.R.T.
I think one call to action that Joe, Jill and other leaders can get from the Black Panther movie is to have coffee with Shuri, and engage and learn from her as the White, high-ranking agent did. This will require courage. This will require heart and spirit (which is the etymology of the word in the Latin) to overcome misplaced fears of the unknown and the estranged. I would like to suggest five (5) key steps of what this engaging process looks like as to make H.E.A.R.T. connection: Honesty, Empathy, Affirmation, Reflection, and Togetherness. Let me elaborate:
- Be Honest – Admitting you don’t know is not a bad thing. But being thankful to get to know is a better thing. Consider your time with a person like Shuri as a privilege to hear her story. You may want to express gratitude as well because you are now engaging in a posture of a student and not a teacher.
- Be Empathetic – Hear everything from Shuri’s view. Do this without any judgements or imposing your story on her narrative. The late Dr. Stephen Covey talked about avoiding seeing her story as your autobiography to correct and/or shape. In other words, don’t colonize.
- Be Affirming – Move from communicating in logic but to more feeling-based language. This may be the toughest one because we’re so wired to analyze and critique everything. We would like to move straight to action. That’s what executive do. We solve problems. However, this is the most critical piece to build understanding, solidarity and belonging.
- Be Reflective – Communicate what you’ve heard and pull out insight or implications. You may even ask follow-up questions to help move you out of your headspace to her headspace. This is really the definition of empathy—seeing the world or perspective of the world through the other person’s eyes.
- Be Together – Once Shuri has confirmed with you she’s been heard (her goals and/or perspectives), find together the best way to respond. It could be letting her know you’ll think or feel differently on the matter shared; helping her with further mentoring or coaching; or supporting her career or project goals. The key question is to answer: how will you journey with her through work-life?
As a networking professional, I know when Joe and Jill meet enough Princess Shuri’s over time with some H.E.A.R.T., they will most likely discover the latent and overflowing talents around them. This will help them to resist hiring redundant talent and lose frustrated talent like Shuri. Engaging these professional women of colour who really want to show their hidden talents will eventually show in the bottom line as a lagging indicator of the company’s success. All these women ask is that their leaders to listen them, so they could show their geniuses and help the company fly their businesses and organizations to unchartered territories.
And Not Forgetting to Bow
Lastly, I didn’t touch on this much. Nevertheless, it’s just as sobering to consider, and I would be remiss not to mention to wrap up. Shuri was a princess. Metaphorically, this should remind businesses and organizations that all women especially Black women have dignity and value. They must be treated and respected as royalty. This should not be lost on us. As the Me Too movement ramps up, we may forget sometimes that it was a Black woman who raised the flag and coined the phrase. This is to say the issue that impacts women in the workplace have been happening to Black women for a very long time, and it should not be forgotten. Let’s joyfully bow and fight on with Shuri!