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Leadership is a service one offers to others. Therefore as a leader, one has to be mindful to not make things about one’s self. At the same time, leadership also requires us to be authentic, transparent and sometimes perhaps even vulnerable. So it’s always challenging as a leader to model behaviours such as honesty and self-revelation, without going so far as to be self-indulgent. The question which helps me navigate this dilemma is What is purposeful? In other words, how can I take my experience and share it in a way which makes it useful for others, thus making a contribution? But also to do this in a way which does not encroach into the territory of making it too much about myself or being self-indulgent. This is what I am going to attempt to do with this post, so let’s see how I go……
In my last post Does leadership require love? I wrote about the need for leaders to have self-love, because without this, it undermines our ability to lead with and from love. Life is funny sometimes, because not long after I published that post I had an experience which profoundly challenged me in terms of the very thing I was referring to in that post.
When the unconscious becomes conscious
I participated in a #BlackLivesMatter march in Brisbane, Australia in early June which was attended by more than 30,000 people. Once we found our place amidst the masses, I took the opportunity to look around me and really ‘take in’ the moment, the people, the feeling of the crowd. The surprising thing to me was that there were so many white people, especially young white people. But even more surprising was that what they were effectively saying was that the lives of people who look like me matter. It was a feeling I could barely take in; a message I could hardly believe to be true. For much of that afternoon I managed to keep that message at bay; to distance myself emotionally from letting the impact of that message wash over me. But then in moments, I could hold it out no longer; and my heart was flooded with the feeling that all these people, total strangers, mostly white people, were there giving their time, their spirit, holding up placards and chanting slogans saying that my life mattered. In those moments tears would stream down my cheeks.
They were tears of relief; tears of appreciation; tears of healing. My surprising realisation was that this feeling that I somehow mattered was totally foreign to me; it went against so much of what I had been told and taught, through the words and actions I experienced, especially in the early part of my life. So what was once buried somewhere in my subconscious, suddenly bubbled to the surface and coalesced into the realisation that I had a deeply held belief that I did not matter, that what I felt and my experience was not important. So embedded in my tears was both a recognition of this subconscious belief and also a relief that once recognised, the pain associated with these experiences could finally start to be healed.
But where did this belief come from? Who or what authored this story that formed such a strong and deeply held narrative, but also one that I was barely conscious of?
Everyone has a ‘back story’, here is mine…
My parents are from Sri-Lanka. I was born in England and we migrated to Melbourne, Australia in the early 1970s. Not coincidentally, that was not long after the abolishment of the White Australia Policy. As a result, we were amongst the first waves of non-white people to migrate to Australia.
When we moved to Melbourne I was the only brown-skinned kid at my primary school, and one of only a handful of non-white kids at my secondary school. Most kids had never encountered a brown-skinned person before, at least in real life. So from the start I was seen as someone different, as someone who did not belong, someone who was ‘less than’. As a result I was picked on, beaten up, called names, spat on, would have Go home n**ger graffitied on my textbooks. These were regular experiences for me through the latter part of primary school and the first few years of high school. Being shy, introverted and a bit of a nerd who found it hard to make friends didn’t help either, as it only made me more of a target. It wasn’t until I finally hit puberty (I was a late bloomer) and the results from my gym workouts started to pay off, that I developed enough of a physical presence and threat that over time the bullying began to abate. But by then it was too late, the damage had already been done….
I had been given the message so many times that what I was feeling, my experience, and perhaps even my life did not matter, that I now believed that message.
The external messages we receive about our worth, at some point in time, become part of our internal dialogue
American author, theologian and civil rights activist Howard Thurman once said: “If we are despised long enough, we eventually despise ourselves.” What he is eloquently capturing is the dynamic by which if we experience abuse and oppression, then over time we will internalise “the oppressor”. What this means is that the narrative of the oppressor or the bully now becomes part of our psychological landscape and therefore contributes to our inner dialogue. This inner dialogue determines how we see ourselves, what we think we are capable of, and what we believe we are worthy of.
In my opinion, this is what makes abuse, oppression and bullying so insidious. When the world outside sends us the message in multiple ways that our life does not matter, or that we are not important, we can hopefully retreat to the safety and sanctity of a house, our bedroom or perhaps even a family; a space which buffers us from the hurtful voices of the world around us. But once this oppressive voice takes residence within one’s own psyche, there is no escaping its impact. It sits deeply within us and quietly, but with skill and tact, drip feeds messages into our internal dialogue, much like a slowly leaking tap… drip….drip….drip….
Each droplet is infused with self-doubt and self-loathing that over time erodes our dignity, self-esteem and self-respect. And because we cannot help but take ourselves with us wherever we go, those messages become an ongoing and consistent aspect of our internal narratives. Once that voice has made itself comfortable and has resided there long enough, we eventually cannot distinguish that voice from our own thinking, because in reality, that voice is now part of us.
Dynamics from the broader culture also get internalised
And it doesn’t just have to be the messages from our own personal experience of abuse and bullying; we also internalise the messages from broader society and the ‘cultural soup’ in which we all swim. Through their repetitive and subliminal nature, these messages also eventually get lodged within our psyches. And in some ways we cannot help this; the cultural context we exist in has an undeniable and pervasive influence on how we see ourselves. This is as true for how we feel we do or do not fit into and are valued by the broader culture, as it is for how an organisational culture influences our performance, engagement and sense of belonging.
As such, a woman within a culture that still has aspects of sexism in it, is going to internalise some sexism into her inner dialogue and then sometimes assess her worth through this lens. A Jewish person, where there are still elements of anti-Semitism and white supremacy in the culture, will absorb some of those historic and toxic sentiments. In a culture where we rarely see same-sex couples and trans individuals represented in mainstream media, TV and movies, individuals from the LGBTIQA+ community will internalise the viewpoint that they are not valued and included as part of mainstream culture. These are just a few obvious examples, but similar dynamics play out around our education levels, socio-economic status or class, religion, able-bodiedness, etc
Internalised oppression manifests in different ways, but it will manifest…
For each of us, this internalised oppressor will have a different voice; a different way of undermining our self-respect, confidence and self-esteem. This will depend on our unique set of experiences and to what extent we feel seen and valued by the broader culture. But the underlying messages are remarkably similar: You don’t belong here. You are messed up and broken beyond repair. You are worthless. We hate you, get out of here. You are ugly/stupid/insignificant. We are more important than you. We don’t even consider you to be human.
And while, as in my case, we are not always aware or fully conscious of that voice, the way it manifests in our day-to-day existence will be all too familiar – anxiety, stress, self-doubt, eating disorders, self-harm etc. For others of us, we deploy what – on the surface at least – looks like a more ‘functional’ strategy – a driving ambition to succeed. Behind this drive and ambition is the need to feel a sense of power, status and control; experiences which may have been lacking in our earlier years. We are desperate to believe that this success will deliver the ‘ammunition’ that will combat the inner voice which whispers in our ear “You will never amount to anything”.
Of course, no amount of external validation and success is sufficient when what we are really needing is a balm for those hurts and wounds we carry inside and rarely allow others to see. This need can give rise to a compulsive, almost addictive need for success, which of course is not sustainable and is often decoupled from other important areas of life and well-being.
And finally, our inner voices influence our leadership
So what does all this have to do with leadership?
Firstly, as I said previously, in order to effectively lead with and from love, we need to have self-love. We cannot give others what we ourselves do not already have inside of us. And even if you are not a proponent of the belief that leadership requires love (which is perfectly fine), I would suggest that even more agreed-upon leadership traits such as empathy, having influence and relationship building require a mindset and an inner attitude where at least a modicum of harmony and centredness is present. When an internal oppressor is running rampant through the landscape of our psyche, it undermines our ability to create and access those psychological states which are most conducive to optimal performance and effective leadership. Additionally, the emotional energy it takes to wrestle with this destructive inner voice makes us more prone to emotional burnout, “compassion fatigue” and other stress-related syndromes.
Secondly, one of the effects of the “internal oppressor” is that it makes us feel ineffective and powerless, thus reducing our sense of personal power. In my post The power that “trumps” Donald, I discuss how Dr Julie Diamond, author of Power: A User’s Guide differentiates power into different categories. In this context, the most relevant of these are positional power and personal power. When we feel like we lack personal power, we can tend to seek positional power as a compensation. The danger of this is that we can use leadership as a ‘vehicle’ to gain positional power and then, rather than being of service, leadership becomes self-serving and indulgent. As we look around the world of business and politics, we see examples (including some obvious ones) of this. One of the ‘non-negotiables’ of leadership is that it is a service one offers to others. So when leadership becomes self-serving it breaks a cardinal rule, which perhaps calls into question, if it can even be referred to as “leadership” at all?
I know that about now many of you are thinking “Yeah Errol, we get it, but what do we do about it?” But for the time being I’m going to keep you in suspense. For many of us just getting our heads around this concept, and then taking the time to reflect on if and how the dynamics of internal oppression play out in terms of our leadership is a massive undertaking in and of itself. So many of these narratives are buried in our subconscious. Therefore, we need to take time to deeply explore our behaviours and excavate our emotions, especially those more troublesome ones; for they are the portal into our underlying beliefs about ourselves, how society perceives us, and the extent to which we believe our life matters.
So for the time being, I’m going to leave you with that challenge.
First published August 5, 2020 on the Bluestone Edge Blog. Republished with permission.
In deciding to narrow his focus to working with elite level sport, he has partnered with Bluestone Edge founder Dr Pippa Grange on a number of key projects, including working with the Australian Olympic swim team after London 2012. He applies his business management experience to sports organisations in Australia and overseas to assist them to manage the complex and competing demands of delivering sustainable high-performance.
He believes that the sporting context provides a powerful forum for transformation in individuals and society by challenging us to continually be the best version of ourselves. He is passionate about creating a safer and more just world for all by mediating conflict, coaching ethical leadership, and facilitating transformation in individuals, elite teams and organisations.
He has a Masters degree in Conflict Facilitation and Organisational Change, B.Sci., B.App.Sci. and is a Diplomate in Process Oriented Psychology.
Errol is a keynote speaker on the connection between leadership, culture and high-performance and the value of a human-centric and relationship focused approach to sustained success.
Coming Out Jew
With a world on fire demanding racial justice and voices crying out in agony and pride that Black Lives Matter, I stand in solidarity in message and action with the powerful movement that is finally sweeping our world. I have written this personal piece in the hope of contributing to all of our work in dismantling supremacy and oppression.
This is the scariest thing I have ever written. I was born in 1958 in South Carolina. My parents, Jewish New Yorkers, were stationed there while my father served in the army. When I was nine I found my baby photos, black and white Polaroids, nestled next to photos of burning crosses. My very young and naïve parents had stumbled into a KKK gathering and after listening to the spew of hatred directed towards Blacks and Jews, vomited and ran the hell out of there.
I grew up in a town 35 minutes north of NYC populated by Italian Americans and was one of a few Jews in grade school and junior high. Mostly I was terrified and desperately wanted to fit in. I knew there were lines that would never be crossed; social gatherings through the Catholic Youth Organization, a swimming pool that I would never attend. I would never attract the interest of Italian boys, and on Wednesday afternoons my entire class walked the two blocks to St. Anthony’s for religious instruction while I remained alone with the teacher. I endured taunts of “dirty Jew” and “kike” and had rocks thrown at me. I skulked around school, could hardly stand up straight, holding back hot tears of shame. When my school work hung on the walls I found those same cruel words defacing my work. And one day, I was scared for my life when 20 girls targeted me for a beating. Surrounded by them, pushed and shoved with no escape, the crowd parted as the leader sauntered into my space and gave me a hard shove. I punched her in the face, she fell on the ground, and I ran onto the school bus. How I survived school after beating up the leader is a story for another day.
As a teen, I declared that I wasn’t Jewish because I did not resonate with the religion. I told my grandfather that I wasn’t Jewish and he told me that when Hitler came again, I was Jewish. I couldn’t get out of it. I was marked.
It is hard to convey the deep terror I feel as a Jew. Whenever I am asked if I am Jewish, the answer does not come easily. I am never comfortable. Once an employer, a blond-haired, blue eyed man by the name of Hanson, asked me; and when he saw my hesitancy and fear, replied, “it’s okay, I am too.” Outside of Jewish enclaves, when I am in a store and searching for Hanukah candles or matzoh, a part of me wonders who will see me. I grab my products and quickly walk away. At times I have been in a store unable to find matzoh, summoned the courage to ask, and have been met with a blank look or worse yet, a look that lingered making me feel very uncomfortable.
This history has been fundamental to my personal growth, my life lens, and path in the world. But it wasn’t until about five years ago in the midst of discussions around race, that I found myself in profound and painful turmoil as my history emerged in a new way. Where am I in this dialogue? Engaging in the urgent and global conversation around racism and the change that needs to happen is close to my heart. But am I only a white woman in this conversation? Of course, with white skin I have had enormous privilege. But something was nagging me and felt difficult to touch, to even be aware of. And then I heard myself say, “I come from a people that have been historically hated for thousands of years.” I let that sink in, the impact in my cells, my nervous system, and psyche. The way I am on high alert, the feeling of being so despised and unwanted goes deep.
Last year I sent in a sample to Ancestry.com. 100% Eastern European Jewish. I belong to an ethnic group that can be tracked in my DNA. I have battled casual remarks and quips of looking Jewish with the common refrain of “What does a Jewish person look like?” I have not wanted to look Jewish. Jewish was ugly; it made us straighten our hair and get nose jobs. Women and men longing for the kind of angular, lean and muscled body most prized in our culture. I can hardly write these things. But I know they are true. They are the underbelly of Anti-Semitism, so deeply internalized, so humiliating to put in print. Jews don’t present this. We don’t talk about the deep and internalized psychological impact of being hated. How could this not impact a Jewish person? A high school teacher confided in me, embarrassed to share that after an anti-racism training, she found herself in an extreme state of mind later that evening, banging her head on the wall and screaming at herself “dirty Jew.”
Jews have been master assimilators and they have had to be in order to survive. The fear of standing out, drawing attention, and speaking out has been with Jews for thousands of years. Assimilation has helped Jews to feel more part of society and many have thrived. As a result, many have achieved success and status, so that the world does not see the burden of what Jews carry. And, we don’t show it. Jewish anxiety is a real thing. Many suffer digestive problems and related health issues. The stereotype of “Jewish” neurosis, elevated in the films of Woody Allen, with characters who are overly worried and anxious, are desperate for reassurance, and strive for perfection. Our body stores our history.
It is hard for people to acknowledge Anti-Semitism except when the white supremacists march in the street chanting “Jews will not replace us.” People forget that there were Jewish quotas (understood as racial quotas that would limit the number of Jews in different establishments) in education and the work force in the U.S. up until the 1960s. Hotels would turn Jews away, club memberships forbade Jews, and certain neighborhoods were off limits. Anti-Semitic stereotypes and tropes are still used in our media. Many Christians still accuse Jews of killing Christ. A woman told me that when she was in college her room-mate asked to see her horns. My grandmother told my mother to not reveal that she was Jewish. When Bernie Sanders began his bid for president in 2016 many criticized him for saying his parents were Polish immigrants and neglecting to say they were Jews who were fleeing Anti-Semitism. Other Jews understood his need for protection and felt the U.S. would never elect a Jew as president. Eventually he did speak about being Jewish. And today as I write this during the Trump era with my hometown of Portland, OR under siege by unmarked military troops in camouflage, the comparison to the rise of Hitler is palpable.
In these urgent and important conversations about race, I have positioned myself as a white person with many privileges. I have listened, agonized over, and become more aware of white dominance and the impact on BIPOC. However, I notice I am not fluid enough in these conversations. I am terrified, a marked woman, caught in the crosshairs — a white target with others who have little awareness of my lived experience. Since Jewish ancestry can be seen in genetic markers there is renewed conversation about whether Jews are a race. Horrifying to many, because historically only white supremacists and Nazis have made this racial distinction. And more recently there are Rabbis using DNA tests to prove racial purity.
There is much discourse about whether being Jewish is a religion, an ethnicity, or a race. All Jews in my circle have assimilated, not identified with religion. The dilemma of Jewish identity is portrayed so well in Spike Lee’s film, BlacKkKlansman where a Black and Jewish detective go undercover to infiltrate the KKK. Like many non-religious assimilated Jews, the detective hadn’t given a thought to being Jewish. Face to face with the chilling threat of the KKK, the Jewish detective is awakened to his identity and his black colleague underscores it by emphasizing that he has skin in the game.
Lewis Gordon, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut asserts, “I see anti-Semitism as a racism. I don’t see anti-Semitism as simply about being anti-religion.” Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Jewish Defamation League affirms that white or light skinned Jews (there are Jews with brown and black skin) have certainly benefitted from being perceived as white, but that “(Jewish) identity is shaped by these exogenous forces—ostracism, and exile, and other forms of persecution [like] extermination. … programmed into the DNA of the Jewish people.”
I know that there is great diversity amongst Jews in regard to identity and lived experience. I feel a little naked. I can feel the scorn of other Jews who don’t share my experience or who feel extremely uncomfortable that I write this. I feel the activist position who only wants me to identify with my white skin and step aside. And of course, I will and have because I share the urgency in the fight for racial justice. But I am more than my white skin and I can’t be silent. Silence and being hidden is intrinsic to Ant-Semitism. I want to be known.
My hope is that this piece helps people to deepen their understanding of Anti-Semitism, particularly the impact of internalized oppression and how that is inseparable from history and social oppression. I add my voice here to bring some texture to our discourse where we can value and be curious about the complexity of our lived experiences and that when discussing any kind of oppression in our families and friendship circles, workplaces and communities there is an intersection. We all have a story. I am convinced that the sharing of those stories is what brings our world closer.
I am a Jew. Today I feel a bit more comfortable saying that.
I am grateful to Errol Amerasekera who had the love and curiosity to ask me the most personal and daring questions and as a result inspired this writing. He has helped me to come out and to value my experience. 💜
Dawn Menken, Ph.D., is a conflict resolution educator, counselor, facilitator, and workshop presenter. She is a senior faculty member in the graduate program at the Process Work Institute in Portland, Oregon and was co-creator of its masters programs, serving as academic dean for ten years. She is the creator of Teens Rise Up (TRU), a cutting edge program that empowers and educates young people to step into their leadership, engage in honest dialogue, and co-create a more welcoming school community. She is the author of the award winning book, Raising Parents Raising Kids: Hands on Wisdom for the Next Generation. A dynamic teacher with a sharp mind and playful spirit, Dawn enjoys working with people from all cultures and backgrounds. For more information see her website: www.dawnmenken.com
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The Process Work Institute stands in community and solidarity against racism and all those who are protesting against police brutality for a fair and just system. Black Lives Matter and we grieve the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and the countless others who have lost their lives to police violence. This is an unprecedented moment that challenges us all to not be silent and to use our voice, energy, and ideas to work towards change and focus on the impact of racial disparity in our communities.
The Process Work Institute condemns all prejudice, racism and injustice in our society, country, and world. We will continue as an organization to work on improving our own awareness, to examine ourselves, and create dialogue which leads to change and more inclusive community.
If you have the means, please consider donating to support the many incredible organizations led by Black, Brown, Indigenous and People of Color, offering their leadership in the movement for change. Some links below as starting points, with special focus on Portland groups:
Right to Health Founded by Leslie Gregory. Right to Health is a Portland based nonprofit organization working to address inequities using a restorative and health perspective, and leading a campaign for the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health to declare racism a public health crisis.
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Deep in your heart, deep in the quietness of the night, your grandest visions include hope for the future of humanity and the planet earth. Formulate those grand visions now …
After thinking of these visions, consider how you can model them in all that you do. Imagine right now using your vision, and see yourself modeling it.
Amplify your vision with the following ‘addition’: n
ature moves us; our job is to make these movements conscious and useful. Dreams and emotions, love and anger happen.
Our job is to guide these feelings so that they enrich our own and everybody else’s life, the life of all sentient beings. This ‘addition’ to your vision implies that life itself is a sacred event, even though it sometimes seems impossible.
Life is not just a problem, but a kind of spiritual fighting ring, a temple requiring your utmost ability and wisdom. Nothing less than the grandest part of you is needed in an ultimate situation. The present moment is an opportunity, not only a threatening catastrophe.
Amy and Arnold Mindell. (2003). Short recipe for resolving conflict crises. Psychotherapy and Politics International, 1(1), 64–68.