Three lessons from intersectional politics for leadership diversity

by A. Pullen, C. Rhodes, C. McEwen, H. Liu

When it comes to leadership diversity, pre-existing political, commercial and managerial agendas have been stubborn to change. While diversity and inclusion have been reflected in some informed organisational policies and initiatives, we are still too often confronted by leadership practices that do not challenge the often unnamed white male norm in organisations and society.

Looking for alternatives, we have been inspired by the radical political organising of the Black and Indigenous activist groups Combahee River Collective and Idle No More. These groups were explicit in making visible how intersections of gender and racial discrimination affect the lives of marginalised people. They also exemplified forms of leadership that embodied that commitment.

At the heart of their work was a deep questioning of the forms of leadership that valorise individualism, competition, and control in favour of an alternate practice that embodies alliances, solidarity, and inclusion beyond hierarchy (c.f. Hardt and Negri, 2017).

Combahee River Collective and Idle No More

Combahee River Collective and Idle No More are grassroots groups that relied on feminist alliances to address social justice issues. During the seven years of political activity starting in 1974, the Combahee River Collective in the United States demanded new ways of thinking and organising that could account for “interlocking systems of oppression” of Black women under capitalism.

More than thirty years later in 2012, the Idle No More movement emerged through a series of ‘flash mob’ round dances in shopping malls across Canada to protest legislation that sought to lift regulations restricting corporate access to natural resources, in particular on the lands of Canada’s First Nations people.

A close examination of these two groups highlights how they subverted and redirected dominant assumptions about intersectional politics through their resistance to multiple intersecting oppressions. These movements democratically organised to dismantle gendered and racial oppression rather than relying on the leadership of a single person or elite group and were able to take ethically informed political action via forms of collective, democratic organising, resistance and solidarity.

In our research, we are thinking through how these movements offer ways to think about and enact leadership for diversity in organisations. Three lessons for leadership are proposed.

Lesson 1: Understand the historical and political context

For leadership practices to work with and across diversity, it is critical to understand the historical, political context in which identity, difference, diversity and the struggles for survival and equality are located. This will help overcome the tendency to individualise difference, conceal inequality and neutralise antagonism and struggle (Ahmed and Swan, 2006). For example, while feminists of different racial background in Australia, Brazil and the United States may have an overlapping political project, the different histories cannot be forgotten in that allied political project. Leadership is thus about working within this difference while forming political alliances between them. This turn to the politicisation of diversity and its leadership is key to developing more inclusive forms of organising that don’t assume that diversity means the same thing to all people in all places.

Lesson 2: Work with and across difference

Leadership for diversity can benefit from embodying a transversal politics (Yuval-Davis, 1999) based on flexible solidarity across and with difference (Collins, 2017). This is a politics that respects the diversity within diversity, while still supporting common political projects and alliances. This starts with understanding issues of difference through the framework of intersectionality so as to challenge the dominant one-dimensional perspectives of diversity. Such a project would also resist the reactionary desire to overcome one form of oppression by instituting a different one that serves one’s own interests. It is the underlying structure of how we understand difference that needs to change. The fundamental democratic respect for difference that does not seek to assimilate is required for the practice of leadership diversity that can emerge through the solidarities and struggles between people.

Lesson 3: Adopt an ethical democratic goal

Leadership practices that position diversity as a problem to be solved to mitigate risks to business outcomes and organisational goals need to be questioned on ethical and political grounds. This questioning needs to be informed by an acceptance that equality is the primary horizon of democratic politics. As far as leadership for diversity is concerned, this equality cannot and should not be subordinated to other leadership goals. In this way, leadership diversity presents political possibilities to move diversity in organisations forward, beyond representational balance, the over-emphasis or reduction of ‘diversity’ to business case-friendly scenarios, or to a falsely imagined pristine ethical space from which diversity may be practised. Practically, the primary goal is equality of outcomes across difference.

In summary, we suggest that leadership can advance diversity and equality in organisations by incorporating a more radical and transversal politics. Such politics challenges the social and political structures that perpetuate interlocking oppressions. This challenge relies on critical alliances negotiated across multiple intellectual, social, geographic and political positions and enacted through flexible solidarity to foster a collective ethical responsibility and social and organisational change.


Ahmed, S. and Swan, E. (2006) Doing diversity. Policy Futures in Education, 4 (2), 96–100.

Collins, P. H. (2017). On violence, intersectionality and transversal politics. Ethnic and racial studies, 40(9), 1460-1473.

Hardt., M. and Negri, A. (2017) Assembly. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Yuval-Davis, N., (1999). What is’ Transversal Politics? Soundings, 12, 94-98.


The ideas in this post are explored in greater details in an article published in a special issue of Management Decision, entitled “Radical Politics, Intersectionality and Leadership For Diversity in Organizations

Header image by MonikaP from Pixabay 

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