The Intersectional Leader - A Leadership Benefit

The Intersectional Leader - A Leadership Benefit

As a Black woman, I had to prove myself worthy of whatever position I was in because my coworkers would cut me no slack.” (Ursula Burns, CEO Xerox- retired)

This quote from the memoirs of Ursula Burns the first African American Woman CEO of Xerox explains the overall experience of most women of color who found themselves in a leadership position.  That specific quote is from a Black woman; however, she could be Asian, Hispanic or any other non-white ethnicity.  The point is that historically, culture prompted exclusionary behaviors in the workplace requiring “the others” in business environments to work harder to prove themselves.

Now, with increased awareness of Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) society has new demands for “the others” or those of non-white ethnicity to be visible contributors to work and leadership. Over the years we have seen the shift to more women in leadership roles. However, we are also seeking to see more women classified as intersectional (cultural, gender, class identities) assuming leadership roles. These shifts in workplace demographics are why this may be the appropriate time to share a new perspective on intersectionality that is being discussed by Mastermind Women.

I belong to a peer-to-peer mastermind group of African, African American, and Asian Mastermind Women. We are sub-group, of the International Leadership Association Women in Leadership Community. Our Mastermind Group was formed to discuss the impacts that our intersectionality has on our life experiences. As leaders and leadership educators, we acknowledge that the intersectionality of our gender, culture and class identifiers have historically, created circumstances for discrimination or disadvantage in workplaces and in society. For those living this life we have had to work more, do more, and be more engaged to prove ourselves. Because of our lived experiences, we have learned to adapt and thrive despite our intersectional circumstances. 

An Emerging Leader Identity

Emerging from our mastermind discussions is acknowledgement of new awareness of the benefits that our intersectional cultural and life experiences bring to a leadership role. We are pushing against the disadvantage-focused lens of intersectionality to create an alternate narrative to intersectional life stories. Our position is that a diversity of life experiences, by organizational leaders, is more beneficial in today’s DEI business environments, than non-diversity of life experiences. 

As mastermind women, we are removing the shackles of disadvantage thinking; then using those same shackles to harness a new perspective. We know, by our lived experiences, that the intersectionality of gender, culture, and class propelled us toward higher education and learning. Against all odds and with more home and work responsibilities, our intersectionality builds work ethic, decision making, team building, stamina, and the efficacy to lead, despite disparate circumstances. 

In fact, we know that when you peel away the shells of disparate impacts from discrimination or disadvantage opportunities, that were systemically and historically, designed to hold us back - what did emerge is a new leadership identify. Therefore, we offer the “Intersectional Leader” as a new leader identity that is beneficial in the workplace.

Historically, profiles of effective leaders have been articulated in the mirrors of white males. Our mastermind group posits that effective leadership requires a spectrum of behaviors. We identified seven-behavioral characteristics of the Intersectional Leader however there are more in this knowledge society.  (1) Service Leadership, (2) Transformational Leadership, (3) Self- Leadership, (4) Adaptive Leadership, (5) Emotionally Intelligent Leadership, (6) Socially Responsible Leadership, and Attentional Leadership. For this blog I will discuss two of the characteristics.

Two Key Characteristic of the Intersectional Leader

  • Servant Leadership: “A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong” ( Greanleaf’s (1977) assessment of what makes great leadership is still embraced, as many organizations seek a softer employee focused approach to leadership.

The intersectional leader (cultural, gender, class identities) is historically responsible for servicing the needs and well-being of their family.  In many households she is the head of the family. She is often the decision maker, problem solver, motivator, and evaluator of the family’s needs and well-being. These are transferrable skills.   

The intersectional leader understands why feelings of well-being can affect organizational and individual performance. She is a care giver. She takes care of employees needs by listening to them, encouraging them to share their challenges and opportunities, and helping them to thrive in the workplace. She understands that when employees thrive and grow the business also thrives.

  • Transformational Leadership: A transformational leader can influence or stimulate change in attitudes, assumptions, and commitments (Hinkin & Tracey, 1999).  According to Towler (2019) the transformational leader is skilled in four specific areas: (1) ability to provide individualized consideration as a mentor, coach, guide and to draw out the unique talents of individuals (2) ability to provide inspiration and motivation that empowers individuals and teams to perform beyond expectations (3) ability to demonstrate idealized influence by role modeling standards of ethical behavior (4) ability to stimulate others intellectually by soliciting ideas, challenging assumptions, and collaborating with followers.

The Intersectional Leader brings their life experiences of stimulating attitudinal changes to positions of leadership. As a leader in their household or community they are often tasked with mentoring, coaching, and guiding others. As a leader in their household or community they are tasked with motivating and inspiring others while empowering individuals and teams. Those with intersectional identifiers are often seen as role models for ethical behaviors because they often bring a spiritual belief system to a situation. Finally, the circumstance of intersectionality sharpens their intellectual skills, hones awareness and ability to challenge assumptions and collaborate with others. These are skills needed in the workplace today.

The Need for Intersectional Leaders

The silent majority is no longer silent. The need to breakdown systemic systems of marginalization is why leadership change is needed.  “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced” (James Baldwin). This quote by James Baldwin can be used as a clarion call for organizational change today.

DEI consultant Tanya Odom (2022) cautions organization leaders to broaden their thinking, “acknowledge what we have learned and unlearned over the last several years and commit to advancing the necessary diversity, equity and inclusion work that still needs to be done.” A February 2021 Gallup Blog titled “The Cost of No Black Leaders in the Workplace” discusses why inclusive and representative leadership can improve the employee experience (Lloyd).

Glassdoor Economic Research launched a study to understand where inequities may exist in the workplace by examining job satisfaction by demographic groups. Their analysis found that African American employees were less satisfied at worked when compared to all employees (Stansell & Chamberlain, 2021).  Organizations are advised that to attract and retain talent they must be intentional and strategic which means “prioritizing equitable access to leadership, by investing in a workplace culture that promotes diversity and inclusion” (Leading Effectively Staff, 2021)

The Intersectional Leader brings a perspective to work and leadership that is needed in the workplace today. Recognizing the contributions of lived experiences should be seen as a benefit for leadership opportunity.  We acknowledge that every individual with gender, cultural, class identities does not make a great leader. The facts are that every white male does not make a great leader; however, they get the leadership opportunities more than any other cultural group.

This advocacy is to encourage lateral thinking about leadership, diversity, equity, and inclusion. This advocacy is to define the Intersectional Leader as a Leadership Benefit


Dr. Jan Cardwell 


Burns, U. Where you are is not who you are (pp. 45-46). HarperCollins. 

Greenleaf, R. K. (1977). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. Paulist Press.

Hinkin, T.R., & Tracey, J.B. (1999). The relevance of charisma for transformational leadership in stable organizations. Journal of organizational change management, 12(2), 105-119.

Leading Effectively Staff (2021,October 21). Create real workplace culture change with a systemic approach to equity, diversity & inclusion. Center for Creative Leadership.

Lloyd, C. (2021,February 11). The culture cost of no black leaders. Gallup Blog.

Odom, T. (2022, January 26). How to avoid the 'post-reckoning' mindset in  diversity, equity, and incluson in the workplace in 2022. AOL.The Grio.

Stansell, A. & Chamberlain, A. (2021, February 18). Black at work: A first look at glassdoor ratings by race/ethnicy. Glassdoor  Economic Research.

Tower, A. (2019, March 6). The qualities of transformational leaders and what distinguishes them from transactional leaders. CQ Dossier.





About the Author

Janice Cardwell



Journal of Leadership Studies-Symposium Piece-Relational Leadership: Perspectives of Key Constructs on Diversity, Inclusion, and Social Equity in Higher Education

Psychology Today
Blog Posts Published


American Psychological Association Conference-Utilizing Clinical Hypnotherapeutic Intervention with CBT to Treat Pandemic-Aug. 13-2021 Symptomology

ILA Conference Geneva Switzerland 2021
Presenter -Topic-"The Stress Arc in Leadership and 3 Powerful Disciplines for Mitigating Major Stress Impacts in a New Era"-Upcoming
Presenter -Topic-“Improving Higher Education’s Role in Diversity and Social Equity through Relational Leadership in the New Era”-Upcoming
Presenter-Topic-"Healthcare Leadership-Using Virtuous Leadership in Chaos to Reimagine Beneficial Practices of Employee Cognitive Psychology"-Upcoming
2021-Knowledge Without Boundaries National Summit-College of Doctoral Studies Research Conference-University of Phoenix-Panel Discussion-"Exploring Emergent Trends in Leadership and Education"-Based on published symposia article from the Journal of Leadership Studies-


Janice Cardwell
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