Reflections on Leadership and Unconscious Bias

By Gali Cooks

In business school, I learned about the concept of “crucibles of leadership.” These are experiences in a leader’s journey that are “a trial and a test, a point of deep self-reflection that forced them to question who they were and what mattered to them.”

A few months ago, I experienced my own crucible of leadership. It wasn’t overly dramatic, as portrayed in the movies (with crescendo-ing music in the background), but it left a mark.

Last fall, the organization I lead, Leading Edge, released a report with findings from our second annual employee engagement survey. Once our report was up online, printed, and blasted out through a press release, we anxiously awaited how the field of Jewish organizations would respond.

Almost immediately, a trusted partner to our organization alerted us to a major oversight. The report, which contained six quotes from thought leaders on topics related to organizational management and workplace culture, quoted only men.

I couldn’t believe it. A cold sweat tingled across my forehead… How could this happen? How had I, a woman who has experienced firsthand the feeling of not being seen or heard, missed this? How had the team of five others who also worked on the report – including three other women and two feminist-identified men – overlooked that we had not quoted any female leaders?

I was ashamed and embarrassed. Our organization, which enables Jewish nonprofits to become great places to work and is dedicated to modeling best practices, had fallen short.

We quickly worked to correct the error. We apologized for our mistake to the trusted partner and thanked them for bringing it to our attention. We replaced several existing quotes with new ones from pioneering leaders, including Sheryl Sandberg and Brene Brown. Then we updated the report online and in print.

It was a crisis averted – but it certainly didn’t feel “over” to us. At a time when women are raising their voices to demand accountability for the myriad ways in which they have been silenced or rendered invisible, my colleagues and I could not simply reduce our mistake to carelessness.

Over the past months, I have come to understand that our oversight is a symptom of unconscious bias  – a product of long-held assumptions about who leaders are and what they look like. Consider Heather Murphy’s recent New York Times article, “Picture a Woman. Is She a Leader?” In the article, Murphy describes an exercise in which people were asked to draw a picture of a leader. The vast majority of respondents drew a man.

We know from our research and from the work of Advancing Women Professionals that women comprise about 70% of the Jewish nonprofit workforce but represent only 30% of the CEOs. This dramatic gender disparity in the C-suite is not due to a lack of talent. There is no shortage of women who are well-qualified to lead Jewish organizations of all kinds. But our society’s perceptions of leadership, and the stories we tell ourselves about who is “in charge,” continue to leave women on the sidelines.

Of course, unconscious bias is not limited to the exclusion of women. People of color, people with disabilities, and people who identify as LGBTQ are also frequently left out of our communal narratives of leadership. We need to make sure that all leaders whose identities are underrepresented – and often invisible – in our Jewish communal story are no longer an after-thought.

Although Leading Edge does not explicitly focus on gender or diversity in the workforce, we are working intentionally to integrate an inclusive lens into everything we do. Fueled by this experience, when gathering data from the field, working with CEO search committees, supporting professionals to strengthen their organizational cultures, and representing portraits of leadership in our materials, we will strive to uphold the values of diversity, equity and inclusion so that our work reflects the entire community.

I share this story in the hopes that by naming and owning our acts of unconscious bias, we can begin to chip away at the exclusion they perpetuate.

Leading Edge will continue to push its work forward. Along the way, we will make more mistakes and likely experience other crucibles of leadership. That comes with the territory when trying to find new solutions to old problems.

But when we stumble and skin our knees, when we realize we have fallen short, we will strive to learn from our missteps and be better than before.

Gali Cooks is Executive Director of Leading Edge