Authentic leadership for anti-racism work -an article by Mariama Deschamps, Plan International

Published by Aubyn Howard on

To fully answer the call of Anti-Racism and ethically serve our fellow human beings, organisations must also engage in deep introspection to transform completely that which holds them back from this call. This includes reforming individual and collective consciousness and thinking around this area. To do this work, the other side of the solution which organisations must take up is engaging in a new style of leadership’

– ‘Leaders who are authentic in their being’ – (Mariama DeschampsPolitical Context of Black Lives Matter Movement and the legacy of colonialization in the international Aid Sector A Call to Action, Decolonization and Authentic Leadership) Keynote Speech International Civic Society Conference November 2020)

International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination 21st of March

On the 21st of March 1960, in the Black township of Sharpeville, white law enforcement officers opened fire on unarmed Africans at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid ‘pass laws’. 69 individuals were killed, and more than 180 others injured.(1) This massacre came to symbolise the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and racial oppression around the world. African leaders, such as Nelson Mandela, fought back against the inhumane system of apartheid, inspiring and guiding people to create a historic movement.(2) It is in remembrance of this day that the United Nations General Assembly dedicated 21st March as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

I learnt about this important piece of history in my late teens when I was freer to explore my learning for myself rather than the strict curriculum we were prescribed. In the country where I grew up – Sierra Leone -, the hangover of British colonialism meant that I grew up knowing more about Henry VIII of England than I did about Black history or the history of my own country.

Just as Black South Africans rose up against oppression in their country, Black Americans were facing different and oppressive forms of racial injustice. Black, Indigenous, People of Colour were being denied the right to vote, proper healthcare, education, and sharing the same services with white people. Groups such as the Black Panthers, and Congress for Racial Equality played a significant role in fighting against racism in the country and were an inspiration to so many other movements in the world.(3)

In both these countries, the success and continued efforts against racism can be attributed to community organising and the leadership style that directed them. Leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Malcolm X, and Dr Martin Luther King employed unique leadership styles that helped minimise violence in the streets and intensified the need for equality and fair treatment in the two countries. These leaders, who left a lasting legacy in their Anti-Racism work, were Leaders who were Authentic in their ways of being.

What do we mean by Leaders being authentic in their ways of being?

It can sometimes be tricky to know what being a ‘good’ leader means. Words like being ‘strong’, ‘assertive’ and ‘confident’ spring to mind. But what about being ‘authentic’? Authentic leadership (also known as conscious leadership) is a way of being whereby leaders are genuine, self-aware and transparent with a focus on building strong and positive right relations. Such leaders will allow their team/followers to increase their participation in running the community/organisation and will invest in both group and individual performance. Leaders in the fight against racism and apartheid used this approach to guide their people in the right direction as they struggled to achieve their goals.

Authentic leaders have several qualities that make them unique in society – most notably:

  • self-awareness,
  • leading with heart,
  • speaking with integrity,
  • holding themselves accountable,
  • seeing the longer term and bigger picture, and transparency.

I am a big advocate for self-awareness. You probably know this if you’ve attended the Power, Privilege and Bias, and pilot Anti-Racism workshops. Self-awareness entails understanding your capabilities and weaknesses and developing ways in which you build your strength and learn the messages coming from your fears. Leaders who are authentic put more emphasis on knowing themselves before helping others improve their skills.(4) This does not mean waiting for full self- awareness before helping but just being one step ahead in awareness in comparison to those they lead.

Leading with heart entails being courageous while guiding others and being ready to proactively protect the rights of others. Leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Dr Martin Luther King, and others devoted all their time and effort to guide their followers to fight for their rights despite understanding the dangers they were facing.

Authentic leaders actively encourage transparency by involving their followers in decision making.(5) They achieve this through promoting open communication and encouraging others to learn from their mistakes regardless of the effects on their lives.(6)

Lastly, authentic leaders share their success with others since they work as a team.

How to practice authenticity in your leadership at work (7)

1) Self-Reflection as an Individual and 2) Reflecting on our impact on other people

Take time to assess yourself. By this I mean assessing your strengths, your weaknesses, and the way you think, feel and react to different behaviours.
Authentic leaders are conscious to themselves, their leadership position and the impact they have in the organisation. They listen with intent and assess how they can make a positive impact and improve cohesion. They promote diversity at all levels and especially where it matters
governance and senior leadership. Authentic leaders use their power, privilege and influence to enable every member of the organisation or community to feel included, gain responsibilities, and use their agency and brilliance to contribute to the collective good.

3) Understand how the systems works

What is your role in the wider system? How can you deliver your work and serve others in the most effective way and with integrity? What will be your legacy?
Authentic leaders recognise that their primary responsibility is to ensure their organisation serves others more effectively through understanding their needs and setting strategies to help them achieve them. Our service must be inclusive, ethical, following the
Do No Harm’ approach and be delivered with integrity. Good ethical values are important. When authentic leaders do their thing, they instil a distinct culture and ethical values system which last long after they have moved on.(8)

4) Standing freely in the wind

As a leader, you will undoubtedly face challenging times. Think about the last year we’ve experienced. Authentic leaders make decisions guided by the organisation’s values. They protect the rights of individuals in all their diversity even in the face of adversity. They make spaces for individuals to share their grievances to leadership. They promote the adoption of values that enhances the development of the organisation’s people and those it serves.(9) They provide proper guidance to people and help them understand the importance of working together, upholding values and achieving goals.

5) Be willing to ask for help

Our egos and defensiveness sometimes stop us from asking for help when we need it most. By understanding their strengths and weaknesses, coupled with a readiness to learn, authentic leaders ask for, and accept offers of help and constructive advice. They build strong two-way right relationships with others and communicate effectively. By trusting the expertise of their colleagues, authentic leaders can ensure success through co-creating better ways of being.

As organisations in the International Aid Sector continue to deal with challenging global and sectorial challenges, shifting values and ways of being, leaders in the sector, including in Plan International can overcome the obstacles by incorporating authenticity into their leadership approaches. Without authenticity we as an organisation, cannot hope to combat racism and all forms of oppression to truly answer the call to decolonise our sector and become a global force for intersectional social equity and justice.



2. SAHO. “A History Of Apartheid In South Africa | South African History Online”. Sahistory.Org.Za, Last modified 2020.

3. WGBH Educational Foundation. “Groups During The American Civil Rights Movement | American Experience | PBS”. Pbs.Org, Last modified 2021.

4. Taylor, Jessica. “10 Authentic Leadership Characteristics, Attributes And Traits”. Executive Search | Executive Recruiters

5. Iqbal, Sadaf, Tahir Farid, Jianhong Ma, Amira Khattak, and Mohammad Nurunnabi. “The impact of authentic leadership on organizational citizenship behaviours and the mediating role of corporate social responsibility in the banking sector of Pakistan.” Sustainability 10, no. 7 (2018)

6. Makhmoor, Talat. “Authentic leadership: Concept of authenticity and qualities of authentic leaders.” Erişim tarihi 29 (2018).

7. Adapted from Five Dimensions of Leadership by Roger H Evans (2020)

8. Shein 1992

9. Indeed. “What Is Authentic Leadership? (Definition And Characteristics)”. Indeed, Last modified 2021.

Aubyn Howard

Aubyn Howard

Aubyn has 30 years’ experience as an organisational consultant, facilitator, educator and coach, supporting transformational change and leadership development with leaders.