It’s well-known that:

  1. Leadership is lonely at the top.
  2. There’s a racial leadership gap across all sectors.

Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a Washington Post interview that leadership “is sort of a lonely job,” despite having “people who will push on you and people to bring out the best in you. People that amplify whatever you’re good at. And then also the people who plug the parts that you’re not and may never be.”

Because they are largely underrepresented in leadership positions, people of color in leadership roles are even more likely to have feelings of loneliness as well as imposter syndrome, compared to their peers. Leaders of color are also more likely to question whether they’re “good enough” or whether they belong. This is especially true in work environments that lack a supportive community that understands what it’s like to have a marginalized identity at work.

Ann Mukherjee, chair and North American CEO of the world’s second-largest seller of wine and spirits, was the only woman of color on the Board. In a CNBC interview, she said that “making your voice heard in that environment doesn’t come naturally, so it can be challenging to overcome….”

What Is the Racial Leadership Gap?

The racial leadership gap refers to the underrepresentation of people of color in leadership positions, particularly at the executive level, despite decades of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives aimed at promoting greater representation across all sectors.

From corporate America and politics to academia, the racial leadership gap is well documented. A 2019 report by Coqual (formerly The Center for Talent Innovation) found that while Black people make up about 12% of the U.S. population, they “hold only 3.2% of all executive or senior leadership roles and less than 1% of all Fortune 500 CEO positions.”

How Does the Racial Leadership Gap Impact Leaders of Color?

Often, leaders of color may be the only person of color in the room or in their department. That experience can be isolating and fraught with unique challenges.

Experiencing a sense of isolation from being the “one and only” can lead to fatigue and anxiety and can negatively impact productivity, health and employee retention. Further, this can lead to feelings of imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome can also negatively affect the productivity of teams reporting to the leader; lead to fear of both success and failure; negatively impact communication; and further threaten diversity.

Additionally, leaders of color may face discrimination, microaggressions and bias from colleagues and subordinates, further hindering their ability to succeed. This can result in feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, ultimately leading to a toxic work environment.

Harvard Business Review published an article about a study conducted in 2022 by Malissa Alinor, a postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab. According to Alinor’s research, “Immediately after experiencing the microaggression, participants rated how angry, shocked, and ashamed they felt. Participants who experienced the microaggression reported significantly greater negative emotions.”

Benefits of Peer Coaching for Leaders of Color

One way to address these challenges is through peer coaching with other leaders of color. Peer coaching involves a group of leaders who meet regularly to support and learn from each other, providing valuable opportunities for each other.

By connecting with other leaders who share similar experiences, leaders of color can find validation, empathy and perspective. By sharing best practices and strategies for success with others, leaders of color can build valuable relationships, resulting in strong networks that can provide support throughout their careers.

Investing in the professional development of leaders of color is not only beneficial for the individual, but also for the organization as a whole. McKinsey’s report, “Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters,” found that “companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.” Beyond potential financial rewards, it also helps to build a culture around fairness.

Further, when organizations tap into the benefits of DEI, they can see improved innovation, creativity and problem-solving. Collaboration among people from diverse backgrounds and experiences bring unique perspectives, leading to more innovative strategies and ideas. In addition, leaders of color are more likely to feel a sense of belonging, which can lead to greater retention and engagement.

What’s Next?

Addressing the racial leadership gap remains a significant challenge across all sectors. Leaders of color who obtain positions of authority face unique challenges, including isolation and discrimination, but peer coaching can provide valuable support and opportunity.

As our society becomes more diverse, it is essential that organizations also become more inclusive and have equitable paths to leadership attainment. They can do this by taking the necessary steps to ensure that their leadership is also diverse, that their culture is one where everyone feels they belong, and that their leaders of color across all levels have the support they need to succeed.