Understanding Privilege and Power in Leadership Roles

For many years, leadership has centered its practice on emotional intelligence and engaging individuals to be aware of the relationships they build with their peers.

From navigating difficult conversations to helping others understand your point of view, most people believe that being a great leader means being able to connect with individuals on a deeper, more sophisticated level.

But lately, the conversation on what it means to be a great leader has centered around something that has been historically ignored.

Yes, I’m talking about privilege.

Bingo gif, Empire


While many leaders still continue to find this word unsettling because of the weight it carries, we can’t talk about what it means to be a great leader without discussing privilege.

Recognizing that the word privilege can often take on a different meaning in regards to leadership, it’s vital to examine the concept if we’re looking to make our workspaces equitable and inclusive.

Though people may shy away from discussions about privilege in leadership spaces, becoming a great leader means being able to navigate those responsibilities and conversations even when they make you uncomfortable.

Understand privilege

Traditionally, the word privilege has centered on the advantages and immunity folks inherently have because of certain aspects of their identity.

Identity often plays a role in how — or if — someone is offered or permitted to take on certain leadership opportunities. But we must acknowledge that identity isn’t the only thing at play when navigating privilege in leadership.

Here’s a truth that’s often omitted: Privilege is about access and those who have the power to provide that access within the organization. Most of the people who have access to leadership development often reflect privilege in their personal identity and sometimes harbor it for their own benefit.

Being a leader is about what you do with that privilege in the role you hold.

Own your privilege

One ways leaders fail is by not acknowledging the privilege and power their role affords them. When anyone decides to take on a leadership role, they’re making a statement — whether they verbalize it or not – that they’re taking responsibility for the development and care of someone else’s experience.

As a leader, you should begin thinking about what systematic privilege means for you and how you may benefit from it. Though the journey to examining your privilege can be difficult, some of the best leaders are those who fully embrace their privilege and the discomfort that comes with addressing it.

Recognize that the issue is never about someone having privilege but about what they actually do with that privilege. Many other folks might be grappling with the same experience, and they may learn a great deal from watching what you do and say. As Maya Angelou once said, “When you know better, you do better.”

Go beyond diversity

Remember that, as a leader, naming and owning your privilege can be a fleeting task, but by doing so, you create a culture that pushes past using diversity as a crutch. By challenging others within your professional or social sphere to think about the power and space they hold and actively naming what that does for you as a leader, you can begin to dive into formidable conversations and use your role for the greater good.

By showing that you understand your privilege and how to use it to make your organization more equitable, you’ll help to create a space that not only embraces change but strategically pushed toward quality development.


Here are some other vital things to do as you navigate privilege in your leadership role:

Examine the space you take up in your organization

One of the my favorite sayings is “take space, make space.” As a leader who recognizes their privilege, you can be intentional about the space you utilize. By thinking about what you do and say to those who look to you for leadership, you will actively demonstrate that you’re mindful of the privilege in your position.


Open doors

Though many don’t, any leader can advocate for those who truly need it. This may mean speaking up for individuals who are often silenced while creating space for others to speak unapologetically. Recognizing your privilege means understanding the access you’ve been granted to certain spaces, the dynamics within an organization, and how influential you can be in helping others access that space.

Don’t apologize

It’s extremely easy to apologize for the privilege you have in your leadership role. Stop.

Most people understand that it takes work to get into your position and that responsibilities are rarely simply handed over to someone. However, by acknowledging the struggle that others have in getting to where you are and actively helping them get to the same level, you’ll create a culture of inclusivity and actionable, equitable justice.

Coming to terms with the privilege you hold in a leadership position can be a difficult task. But remember, with great power comes great responsibility.


This means setting an example that includes interrogating what privilege means in your organization and how you benefit from it.

By recognizing the function of privilege and creating opportunities for others who don’t have the same access, you can change the way we examine privilege in leadership roles.

How have you examined your privilege? Let us know at @themoderncampus and @DoctorJonPaul.

Editor’s Note: Hey reader! We have a new podcast. We thought you might enjoy this episode. To read the transcript and get more resources, head here

Dr. Jonathan Higgins

About the author: Dr. Jonathan P. Higgins (he/him) is a speaker, writer and activist with more than 10 years of student affairs experience. Their work focuses on race & identity and ways to better support marginalized students while eradicating oppression. Learn how we can help get your students involved.