In Search of Black Male Leadership

Damyn Kelly, JD, PhD

The recent deaths of Blacks and particularly, Black males by police have increased calls for racial and social justice.  Diversity, equity, and inclusion have become the buzzwords of the day, with corporate America, philanthropy, and government providing millions of dollars to address these issues, especially in leadership positions in the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. While the lack of diversity in leadership has existed for decades, the rising interest in Black Lives Matter and racial and social justice have brought the issue of the lack of diversity to the forefront of our national discourse. Why has there been such a lack of diversity in the leadership of the non-profit sector? Why do Blacks occupy only 3.5% of the leadership positions in the industry?  When dissecting the number of Black CEO’s and separating the number of Black women, Black males represent less than 2% of the leadership in the sector. What are the factors that impact the lack of Black males in leadership? What characteristics do those Black males who hold leadership positions share, and do they share aspects different from those of their White male counterparts?

In a sector that employs 10% of the population, contributes 5.4% of the gross domestic product, and has revenues of more than 1.65 trillion dollars, one must consider whether the economic strength of the sector, its influence in communities and its potential for galvanizing true political power in underserved communities contribute to the lack of a more diverse leadership? Why are there so few Black men who lead these organizations, and what distinguishes those Black men who have achieved leadership positions in non-profit human services organizations from those of their White counterparts? What would the human service sector look like if there were an increased  number of Black men in leadership positions. What impact would a Black male have on young men and women who participate in the programs of these organizations? Why does society continue to focus on the pathology of the Black male as opposed to their achievements? Recently, I had the privilege of conducting research examining these issues in fulfillment of my doctoral degree. This article reflects some of the findings from that research.

Historical systemic racism, gender discrimination, negative media portrayals, limited employment opportunities, a focus on the pathology of the Black male and a criminal justice system that incarcerates Black males at rates higher than that of any group in the country has limited the ability of Black males to flourish economically, educationally and socially in this country. Also, overt racial discrimination negatively impacts career advancement, opportunities for leadership, and employment satisfaction (Whitaker, 2019).

Loury (2005) posits that the perceptions of Black males as criminally involved, lazy or anti-social further contribute to the lack of access to employment opportunities that may lead to positions of authority within an organization. Due to these barriers, the Black male is limited in his ability to gain meaningful employment and in his ability to secure the type of employment that would enable him even to be considered for the position of chief executive. However, despite these obstacles, there have been Black males who have attained positions of leadership.

The discriminatory atmosphere preventing Black males from ascending to chief executive positions in nonprofit human services organizations is historically rooted in the early settlement houses, one of the earliest forms of social service provision in the nation. Settlement houses were formed to assist the poor, primarily focused on helping poor eastern European immigrants arriving in the United States assimilate to American culture (Robbins & Tippen,2018). They were not created to achieve racial equity but to achieve assimilation. Many of their founders, sponsors, and staff were primarily upper-middle-class college-educated men and women who were White and saw themselves as the saviors of the urban poor (Reinders, 1982). Thus, the sector was created by Whites, staffed by others similar in stature, and designed to assist immigrants in assimilating to the predominant WASP culture (Robbins & Tippen, 2018). Racial inclusion or diversity was not a consideration.

Black males have less of a chance of becoming the chief executive than White females and Black females (EEOC, 2013). Research has shown that there are several challenges and obstacles that the Black male faces that are different from other groups seeking to ascend to leadership positions. For example, the perception by others as being threatening in their persona (Brysons, 1998) may impede the Black male’s ascension to the leadership position. Workplace inequities and an inability to acquire value positions further prohibit Black males from leadership positions (Mong & Rosigno, 2009). Black males also have less access to information and power in the workforce which may further limit their ability to rise within the leadership ranks of an organization (Smith & Joseph, 2010). Leadership opportunities may also be denied to Black males, based on the Black male’s belief that their investment in their personal career development does not lead to increased opportunities for growth, thus further limiting their ascension within the leadership ranks. (Smith & Joseph).

Despite the obstacles, Black males have achieved executive leadership positions in the non-profit sector, and those who do have common characteristics that may serve as guidance for the development of leadership training that would enable more Black males to follow the same path. 

Research (Kelly, 2020) showed that the average age of Black male CEO’s is equal to that of their White colleagues, with an average age range of 51-60. However, educational achievement revealed a distinct difference between Black males who held CEO positions compared to their White colleagues. In terms of educational achievement, 100% of Black male CEO’s held graduate degrees compared to only 50% of White CEO’s.

Black male CEO’s indicated in the study that their current position was the first time they held a CEO position. In comparison, 60% of White males reported having held a prior CEO position before their current position.  Similarly, 100% of Black males reported holding leadership positions in their Church, fraternal, or civic organization in which they were a member, wherein, only 20% of White males reported holding leadership positions outside of their current position of employment.

The need to give back or the sense of altruism was also a finding that was a significant factor for the reason why Black males became engaged in the human services sector. This was not a significant consideration for White male CEO’s. Perception of their position also differed amongst Black and White respondents in the study. Black males overwhelmingly indicated that they believed that they were perceived as a Black CEO instead of a CEO who happened to be Black. In comparison, White males identified their White Male Privilege as a contributing factor towards the perception of their being the CEO.

One of the most significant findings of the study was the impact that the racial makeup of the Board of Directors or search committee had on the race of the organization’s CEO. The study found that 81% of the Black male CEO’s were hired by an organization whose Board membership was predominantly Black. Of those study participants who were hired by White majority Boards, it was found that those Boards had a Black membership of at least 25%. In contrast, 100% of the White Male CEO’s were hired by a Board of Directors that were majority White. Only two White respondents indicated that their Board had two or more Black members.

Having a supportive family, strong spiritual values, and a mentor, although not necessarily one in the human service sector, were also inherent amongst the Black Male CEOs. These same characteristics were not found to be significant amongst the White respondents.

Racial and social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion are important and necessary goals to achieve. However, the findings of the research show, that the achievement of these goals, especially as it pertains to leadership in the non-profit sector may not be achievable until greater diversity is achieved in the racial makeup of the Board of Directors of organizations whose primary responsibility is to hire the chief executive of the organization. As such, greater focus needs to be placed on the recruitment of Board members who represent the diversity of the client base of these organizations. Black fraternal, civic, religious, professional, and social organizations must also expand their organizational goals and roles to include meaningful and purposeful engagement with the non-profit sector. Sponsoring food, drives, clothing drives or volunteering at book readings are not enough. These organizations must bring their tremendous talents, treasures, experience and lived experiences to the non-profit community as members of the Board of Directors. Only then that the values and leadership of the sector can truly reflect the values of all communities and not the privileged few. It is only then that true diversity, inclusion, and equity can be achieved.

Damyn Kelly serves as the President and CEO of Lutheran Social Services of NY. Throughout his career as a nonprofit executive, he has led organizations serving the formerly incarcerated, the developmentally disabled, those living with mental illness, the homeless, individuals living with HIV/AIDS, immigrants and vulnerable children and families. Damyn has also served as a frequent speaker, presenter and lecturer on issues pertaining to diversity, equity and inclusion with a special emphasis on the lack of executives of color in the nonprofit sector and the lack of Black males in leadership positions. Dr. Kelly serves on several Boards of Directors, was named recognized one of the 100 most influential nonprofit leaders in New York by  City and State Magazine, and has been recognized by the NYC City Council, the NYS Assembly and the US Congress for his work on behalf of vulnerable populations. Damyn received a BBA from Adelphi University, a Juris Doctorate from the Antioch School of Law and a PhD from the Adelphi University School of Social Work.