Why Deliberately Explore LGBTQ+ Leadership

This is an excerpt from Forging Queer Leaders: How the LGBTQIA+ Community Creates Impact from Adversity by Bree Fram and Liz Cavallaro.

Asked why her journey to authenticity was important to understand, DEI (diversity, equality, and inclusion) thought leader, author, and entrepreneur Jennifer Brown said:

“What does it create in us when we have to fight in the closet, and when we have to fight our way out of it? What does it grow in us? What does it ignite in us? It ignites this commitment to ourselves that is tested, but prevails. That’s a huge victory. It’s a power. It’s a light you ignite in yourself that never goes out. It’s a belief in yourself. It’s a faith in the rightness of you. We can be so powerful, so persuasive, so empathetic, so perceptive. We can be such gifted leaders precisely because of these struggles and the survival that it took to be us. There’s something very beautiful out of that. I credit coming out with a lot of my courage, resilience, and character. I don’t know if I ever would have been the person I am now if that had not been who I was.”

Journeys like Jennifer’s are what we seek to understand. How do LGBTQ+ experiences forge amazing leaders?

This book is predicated on an idea: good leadership helps all of us flourish. With good leadership people reach higher than they thought possible. What everyone looks for is leadership that lifts people up and helps them reach their full potential, not leadership using people as means to an end. Leaders who step on others for short-term or selfish gains do so at the expense of developing their people and long term organizational achievement. So, why explore LGBTQ+ leader development? We believe LGBTQ+ journeys push people to become the type of leaders we want in our lives. Understanding how they develop leadership capacities, the pitfalls they experience along the way, and how everyone can support their journeys is crucial to helping all of us succeed.

You can’t identify a leader by title or position alone. We can’t assume a senior vice president of a major corporation is a leader, just as we can’t assume a flight attendant or a driver for GrubHub isn’t a leader. In his book Leadership for the Twenty-First Century, Joseph Rost defined leadership as “an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes.” Leaders use influence to get things done. In fact, the Department of the Air Force’s Women’s Initiative Team, a fearless group spearheading major changes within the military fostering an inclusive environment, has a motto: GSD (politely—getting “stuff” done). The leaders you’ll meet here, regardless of position or industry, embody both ideas. They work with, and on behalf of, others to make real changes and get it done.

We’ve drawn stories from over a hundred LGBTQ+ leaders with diverse backgrounds and experiences. From young professionals to senior executives, several nations, across businesses, academia, medicine, nonprofits, entertainment, and government service, these leaders represent myriad intersectional identities and perspectives within the broad LGBTQ+ community. We draw somewhat heavily from the military because of our backgrounds and because the development of leaders is a military imperative with many challenges and opportunities. We can learn much from what military LGBTQ+ leaders have faced, including the legacy of DADT and the ban on transgender military service that put a very visible “before and after” period in their leadership journeys.

We also draw from the military context an understanding of the environment and the necessary attributes of a leader. These attributes are not static, they change with circumstance. Leaders operate within a rapidly shifting environment that demands the capacity to thrive amidst continuous change. In 1986, the Army War College began describing the modern environment as VUCA, which is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. More recently, the Congressional Future of Defense Task Force stated that “the changing nature of warfare dictates that the modern U.S. military will need an increasing number of service members capable of operating in a complex and fast-moving battlespace with limited communication or direction from higher authority,” and that leaders and processes would need to be “more agile, creative, and less risk-averse.” These environmental demands are echoed across industries and sectors. Global influences, market fluctuations, and changing technology quickly and often unexpectedly force rapid adaptation or place an organization at risk of obsolescence. The vast amounts of data generated and available at all times can be ambiguous or contradictory and leaders are called upon to make sense of it all, incorporating multiple perspectives and responding to a variety of stakeholders. VUCA language is a shared lexicon describing today’s professional environments and experiences. Our world requires leaders to hold advanced skills and capacities to operate effectively, many of which are developed through the life experiences of LGBTQ+ leaders.

Complex challenges require multiple perspectives, not just to understand, but to design and implement solutions. Diversity in an organization, when fostered by inclusion, is one of the ways to bring out the perspectives the situation requires. Fashion designer Michael Kors, a gay man, spoke about the advantage of having a different perspective in business. “That feeling of being other is often what makes you successful—because to be successful, in any field, you need to see things differently and find opportunities that most people don’t see. You need to sense a good idea before it happens.” There is a rich repository of research that shows diversity helps create better solutions to the challenges we face, from creating business plans to healthcare outcomes, or in developing requirements for next-generation military systems.

Our contributors are an often missing, or deliberately hidden, piece of the diversity puzzle. While any volume claiming to have exhausted the list of possible queer identities can’t possibly be right, we’ve tried to capture a broad and diverse set of perspectives and intersectional identities. Yet, if you peel away all the distinctive factors regarding their identity, circumstances, and work, you’ll see one element clearly in each of their stories. They all want to make the world a better place. We want to show you how and why they do so while illuminating how they can go even further.

If you’ve made it this far and are still asking why it’s worth learning about LGBTQ+ leadership, don’t worry: this book is still for you! Everyone can draw lessons from the stories and concepts in this book. For example, we’ll illustrate how transitions aren’t just for transgender people. Everybody transitions! Perhaps you’ve transitioned from single to married or from one job to another. We all do it. The old adage that the only constant is change is especially apt. The lessons drawn from LGBTQ+ leaders and the changes they’ve been through have important implications for all of us. We thought we knew this topic pretty well from lived experience and education, yet even we were surprised at some of the things we learned and at how much more there is to understand. We hope the journey you’re about to take provides some “aha!” moments that enable you to be more aware, to be a better leader, or simply to be amazed.

Forging Queer Leaders by Bree Fram and Liz Cavallaro is available now! Click here to learn more.

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