my academic and professional career in the world of higher education, I
occupied a rare range of roles and responsibilities: I served as an
associate provost for diversity and inclusion, as a tenured-track
faculty member, and as a female director of athletics. In those many
roles, I recall distinct moments when I heard a sometimes subtle,
sometimes not so subtle, message to stay in my place, or, at times, to
pretend I wasn’t even present in the room.
I often compare these
near out-of-body experiences to a chilling scene in Lee Daniels’s movie
The Butler, when Annabeth tells Cecil Gaines, who is played by Forest
Whitaker: “When you’re serving, I don’t even want to hear you breathe.
The room should feel empty when you’re in it.”
It’s a simple, yet
sinister message that I have both absorbed and railed against. Today, I
recognize how those moments changed, challenged, and taught me the true
meaning of courageous leadership and the importance of passing along
what I’ve learned to others.
I’ve learned that
knowing one’s place and staying in one’s place are two different things.
Knowing your place is about understanding the social, political, and
individual contributions you bring to your position of power. Staying in
your place is an act of oppression. Whether self-imposed or externally
enforced, the “stay in your place” mentality is designed to ensure
current power structures remain intact.
As a leadership
consultant, I believe we’ve spent too much time focusing on leadership
attributes, theories, skills development, and power dynamics. In the
process, we've managed to make highly functioning, emotionally astute,
and sometimes introverted individuals feel like they shouldn’t have a
place at the leadership table. Too often, we’ve been taught that
leadership and leading are reserved for a select few—a perspective that
is both disingenuous and shortsighted.
I also believe that
many of us choose to stay in our place, or not speak up, due to
fear—fear of losing a job, not making tenure, being viewed as an
outcast, or misrepresenting the entire university community. These fears
are pervasive weapons that consistently stifle educational leaders from
becoming public thought leaders. To be clear, fears of reduced job
security, promotion opportunities, or longevity are not new social
concerns or specific to educators. However, in a society that espouses
the ideology of meritocracy and the importance of intellectual rigor and
democracy, one must wonder why the most educated among us remain
cautious about contributing years of their research, evidence, and
educated views on matters that impact the larger society to audiences
outside of scholarly outlets.
Our democracy depends on public intellectuals, researchers, and scholars to analyze, critique, and contribute to the
vast national dialogues that impact the critical issues of today and
help shape our collective futures. Despite both the seen and unseen
consequences of speaking up, silence is equally dangerous, especially
from those with the intellectual capacity to contribute in meaningful
ways. As a leader, I have come to see the cost of this silence as too
high, and its impact as both devastating and long lasting.
Finally, I learned that stepping into your rightful place takes
passion and, yes, rage. In my book, Navigating CouRage: A Black Woman’s
Journey in Academia and Athletics, I contend that only in times of
indignation, or when we are outraged about an injustice or action, do we
reduce our reliance on the cost-benefit analysis of our own safety and
decide to act. Courage, I believe, is rooted in community. It requires
both personal and collective sacrifice, a deep love for humanity, and
the understanding that we are all interconnected. It requires each of
us, individually and collectively, to be better and demand better in the face of fear. Be courageous.
Robin Martin is president/founder of Leading Beyond the Post, Inc. For more information about Martin, visit the Leading Beyond the Post website. Follow her on Instagram at dr.robin_martin.