“You’ve got to know that you know that you know.”
That was my Granny’s way of saying that each of us must be sure of what we know about ourselves and our experiences. That way of knowing reinforces that no one can make us doubt that which we have firsthand knowledge of.
To clarify, Granny was a Black church matriarch. Consequently, she primarily was referring to salvation and spirituality. But I’ve come to learn that the need for this knowing or spiritual discernment is not limited to church. Wherever we go we must be ready at a moment’s notice to call upon the way of knowing cultivated and passed down by our Black mothers.
Recently I remembered Granny’s lesson when I served as a guest panelist for a Chicago-based business consortium. Here established business leaders serve as mentors to small business owners in a 12-month program. A leader from one of the sponsoring organizations invited another Black woman business owner and me to serve as guest panelists.
The mentees of the program were women and men mostly from the African American community. Many were launching businesses for the first time. The executive mentors were predominantly white men and a few women.
I was asked to focus on providing leadership tips for the small business owners. At the end of the panel, the facilitator opened the conversation to the audience. It was very affirming to hear the participants share their insights from our respective presentations. Thankfully, my co-panelist and I had played off each other very well.
Know The Power Plays
All was going smoothly with our exchange of ideas until one man began to co-opt the platform and advance his ideas. I’ll call him Mr. Man, who I quickly realized was one of the mentors. He first expounded on the need for building a business network, something he apparently had taught the group in a previous session. He then moved on to talk about leadership.
At one point Mr. Man directed a question toward me. He asked if I knew any of the professors at two elite business schools in Chicago. I wondered where he was going with this line of questioning. However, I knew deep inside it was far from an innocent inquiry. The facilitator voiced what I was thinking. Her questioning him did not dissuade him. He continued, now stating how wonderful it would be if he introduced me to people at those schools so I could get the opportunity to teach at one of those schools.
I thought his offer was ill-timed and out of place. Still, I wondered if there was more.
You see, what I know is that some people will discount you because you don’t have on your resume what they consider to be the right school or the right degree. Or they may try to invalidate you if they don’t consider you to be the right race and gender.
Certainly, the organizer had invited me to speak on leadership because I develop and deliver leadership programs for numerous domestic and multinational companies. Yet, Mr. Man persisted in centering his experiences with these business schools.
What I have learned about leadership is that all knowledge claims about leading aren’t validated or legitimized only in business school. In fact, for the audience I was speaking to, my experiences of launching a business as a Black woman and successfully running that business for 20 years, connected me to that audience in ways that this older white man, could never connect.
Know When to Pivot
So I made a major pivot.
“Here’s what I know,” directing my comments to the intended audience of mentees who wanted my leadership insight. “Depending on where each of you are in your business cycle, you may still be doing a great deal of the heavy lifting.”
I continued: “I know when I started my business, I did everything from developing programs, editing programs, marketing my services to keeping the books. You name it. But as you grow, you will go from being an entrepreneur who does everything, to a business owner who manages a team of doers. Ultimately you will need to motivate and inspire the people who work for you. That is where leadership comes in. In fact, there are five key points of becoming a leader that small business owners grapple with.”
I re-established the conversation on my terms and included some of my co-panelist’s key points. Mr. Man demonstrated that he was connected to key business professors at two prestigious universities that he could introduce me to. He dangled a carrot with something he thought he could do for me. Yet, I knew that this was less about me and more about him establishing his power. Perhaps without even realizing it, he demonstrated his unearned privilege that enabled him assume that he could hijack the presentations of two Black women.
You see, from my perspective, this presentation was not about me; it was not about me becoming connected with his movers and shakers. It was about me serving this audience with wisdom I had gained and could help each of them lead their businesses more wisely.
For generations Black women have had to know and discern what was really going on in a situation so as not to be duped, discouraged or destroyed. Years ago, Black feminist sociologist Dr. Patricia Hill Collins created a framework that described and honored Black woman’s ways of knowing. Dr. Collins taught us that our foremothers developed a way of knowing that led to wisdom about life. She noted,
“Living life as Black women requires wisdom because knowledge about the dynamics of race, gender, and class oppression has been essential to Black women’s survival.”~Patricia Hill Collins
Now my encounter with Mr. Man was not necessarily a matter of survival, but it was a matter of respect. It was about discerning what was really going on and dealing with it for the sake of the audience. One of the leaders of the program posted this message the next day:
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to facilitate a panel discussion with 2 fabulous women…The discussion was rich and amazing but it was what happened in between the lines that endears me to Dr. Porter King. She skillfully addressed an issue with tact, eloquence, assertiveness, and confidence.~ Panel Facilitator
You see, using wisdom in sharing what we know is crucial to leading well as Black women.
Know the Leading Lessons
So, what lessons shall we draw from this experience?
- Know who you are and show up confidently in your identity and experiences. Don’t let anyone intimidate you by their games playing. And don’t let anyone goad you into defending your leadership or yourself. You don’t have to defend on earth that which has already been established in heaven.
- Know that you’ve prepared for that very moment—whatever the challenge may be. Know what you know. Know your audience. Know the value that you bring to your audience.
- Know that wherever you lead or influence, it’s not all about you. It’s about you leaving people, places and processes better as a result of your leadership.
- Know that your voice is important, and somebody needs to hear what you have stored up inside. Know that what you say in moments of challenge and crisis will model for others how to handle similar situations.
- Know who is in your network. Partner with people you can trust to have your back as you will have theirs. There are other Black women who know what we know and are ready to speak up.