Spanning Two Worlds: Social Identity and Emergent African-American Leaders

By Slay, Holly S. | Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Spanning Two Worlds: Social Identity and Emergent African-American Leaders


Slay, Holly S., Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies


The literature that explores African-American leadership has largely examined the institutional and societal factors that threaten the likelihood that African-Americans will emerge or be successful as leaders. However, in recent years, the emergence of African-Americans in key executive positions within the Fortune 500 suggests that select individuals are managing to overcome external threats to success. I argue that the social identity literature provides fresh theoretical perspectives for understanding the determinants of behavior that enable minorities to navigate institutional barriers to advancement. This literature enables the examination of leadership as a function of in-group/out-group membership. This paper focuses on choice in identification as an antecedent of leadership attributions, and possibly, success. This is an important perspective because it enables the analysis of African Americans as members of multiple constituents groups, specifically, various work groups and political coalitions (which all nascent leaders must negotiate) and the African-American ethnicity (into which they are born and may feel some degree of duty). The role of social context is also explored.

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"I learned very early on how to move between both worlds and develop a level of comfort and confidence no matter what world I'm operating in." (Kenneth I. Chenault, President and CEO of American Express, quoted in Whigham-Desir, 1999)

"Chenault ... unlike [Harvey] Golub, though, has always been able to engage the emotions of his colleagues as well as their intellects. "Harvey is a brilliant man, but Ken has the hearts and minds of the people at the TRS (Travel Related Services) company" says Thomas O. Ryder, a longtime AmEx exec ..." (Bianco, 1998)

In 2001, three African American men became CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Although the ascent to the apex of corporate America happens fairly frequently, it isn't often accompanied by the heralding of societal change. Discussions of societal change ensue, however, when one speaks of Kenneth Chenault (American Express), Richard Parsons (AOL Time Warner), and Stanley O'Neal (Merrill Lynch). Yet, each of these men expresses discomfort when race is invoked in reflections on their success. "I think that's a narrow definition of a person because it's only one element of who they are, says O'Neal" (Roberts, 2002). The feeling expressed in this quotation regarding personal definition raises provocative issues for organizational behavior scholars and practitioners alike.

Now, more than ever, many corporations in America seek to increase the diversity within their walls (Kahn, 2001). Companies have varied reasons for pursuing diversity goals. Ely and Thomas' (2001) typology of diversity perspectives suggest three perspectives that can possibly be applied to organizational diversity strategy: (1) integration and learning (diversity brings insights and skills that are potentially valuable resources), (2) access and legitimacy (diversity enable organizations to gain access to and legitimacy in diverse markets), and (3) discrimination and fairness (workforce diversity is a moral imperative). Milliken and Martins' (1996) summary of diversity literature suggests that racial and ethnic diversity may be positively associated with improved cognitive outcomes such as number and quality of ideas. Additionally, Ely's (1994) research presents evidence for the possibility of symbolic consequences of diversity. Specifically, the presence of women at senior levels may signal access and opportunity to junior women.

In many ways, diversity strategies used to achieve such outcomes are impacting the complexion of corporate America. The companies on Fortune's list are considered the top 50 corporate diversity leaders and have "ethnic minorities holding 11% of board seats, 23% of the officials and managers, and take home 13% of the 50 largest paychecks" (Kahn, 2001). …

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