Effectively leading change requires self-esteem, hopefulness, and trust. An individual’s store of such emotions is only as deep as the degree to which they have worked through their internalized oppression. This work is the core of building “personal sustainability,” and thus the most powerful place that supporters can direct their efforts.
To support leaders in moving through their internalized oppression, we must help them recognize, understand, and develop ways to address it. Internalized oppression often manifests as distrust, low self-esteem, and feelings of powerlessness or defensiveness (Ruth 2006, p. 136-145). We can support leaders in understanding how these emotions connect to their internalized oppression by offering opportunities for discharge and self-reflection. These opportunities can happen informally or formally, such as through leader support groups. Groups also offer structure for a leader to set goals for working on these issues, with the additional support of regular feedback and encouragement (Ruth 2006, p. 45).
As a leader’s self-awareness deepens, her team can support her in moving through identified challenges. For example, we can express confidence and optimism in making change when a leader’s vision may falter because of an internalized sense of powerlessness. Or we can model a collaborative working style when a leader’s self-doubt may be manifesting as defensiveness. While supporting leaders to move past their limitations may feel more complicated than simply praising where they are already succeeding, we are truly supporting their personal sustainability by helping them evolve past their internal challenges in their ability to lead their best.
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Since reading Seán Ruth’s chapters on oppression in Leadership and Liberation (2006), I have had my first opportunity to observe the effect of internalized oppression within a leader and offer mindfulness and compassion to support her resilience and personal sustainability. Last night, a friend invited me to partake in a coffee our “talk story” with the current mayor who is also campaigning for another term. At the beginning of the conversation, a number of questions were asked about what she could do to support the economy on Maui through specific legislative reforms. Her response was that she could do nothing; her executive role did not possess legislative capabilities. Her affect in giving these responses was tired, hopeless, defensive, and saddening.
The conversation then shifted to renewable energy. Somebody asked her to discuss her success in promoting a clean energy economy on Maui, which has been one of the mayor’s platforms during this election cycle. In prompting her to share about how she was able to succeed in this endeavor, her attitude dramatically shifted. She was articulate and concise in explaining that her success in the renewable energy movement lay in mobilizing individual actors and groups within the renewable energy market to promote their own cause. Her administration supported these efforts by reallocating a percentage of the discretionary budget to 1) lobbying at the state and federal level for community funding in the renewable energy sector, and 2) securing state and federal money for renewable energy projects.
The mayor’s dramatic attitude shift showed me that sustaining her capacity as our leader lies in helping her recognize her own agency. In “praising (her) where she was already succeeding,” as team Moxie stated, the conversation helped the mayor to identify a counterexample to her internalized oppression, and thus restored her sense of capability in addressing issues beyond the direct purview of her executive role. Witnessing the power that self-oppression has in crippling the mayor’s capacity to lead was a powerful illustration of the importance in sustaining our leaders.
Interestingly, this empowerment was two-way. Through this conversation, my peers and I were encouraged and advised about how to approach legislative reform at the county and state level. Several of us in the group resolved to take collective action to address some of the issues that were raised in the course of the discussion. I would assert that the presence of the mayor was a catalyzing factor in this decision. Having a high-profile community leader listen to our concerns and offer guidance about how to address them was the encouragement that we needed to become empowered to make a change.