When we studied the motivations, relationships and networks, and skill sets and behaviors of BIPOC leaders, we found strengths that are particularly well suited for social change. In some cases, these strengths are evident among good leaders of all identities, but may manifest differently in leaders of color. Other assets are uniquely based in identity and therefore are more common in the leadership approaches of people of color.


One of the most common things we heard from leaders of color was that they felt “called” to their work. Some spoke about being driven by a desire to address challenges that they themselves or their community experienced, often as a result of racism or other forms of oppression. While the value of proximate leadership has been embraced by many across the sector as a path to better solutions, less recognized is how motivation can be powerfully strengthened by that proximity.

Relationships and Networks

Given the demographics and power structures of the nation, people of color often learn out of necessity how to build connections across lines of differences, including with both white allies and other communities of color. As a result, research shows, their networks are typically more heterogeneous. That is a powerful asset to draw on to learn, grow, access opportunities, and navigate challenges that arise. Kyle Dodson, the CEO of the YMCA in Vermont’s Greater Burlington area, often finds himself the only Black face in powerful rooms in the overwhelmingly white region and sees himself as a bridge between communities.

Skill Sets and Behaviors

Part of the squishiness around the definition of a “good leader” is that there is no consensus regarding a universal set of characteristics one should have. The know-it-when-I-see-it approach often reinforces dominant culture norms and thus has narrowed the vision of what leaders can and should be.

With that said, there is some agreement that the qualities of good leaders show up in several dimensions, namely within themselves, with others, and with their vision.

Read the full article about learning from leaders of color by Darren Isom, Cora Daniels and Britt Savage at Stanford Social Innovation Review.