How Leadership Can Respond to Racism and Poverty

Updated: Sep 24

In some organizations, silence on the issues impacting the world today is deafening. Organizations and communities are more connected than some may want to believe, and I don’t mean six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. Minor changes in organizations can lead to significant differences in our communities. Experienced leaders understand that what happens at work does not stay at work, and what happens at home does not remain at home. Society is looking for modern leaders and organizations to be positive sources of influence on global issues. This article reveals the unfortunate truth about how poverty is connected to racism and how an emerging 21st Century leadership approach can be a catalyst for solving racism and poverty.

Poverty & Racism

Poverty is a little understood issue that creates real disadvantages to achieving the American Dream of upward socio-economic mobility. While most Americans (88.2%) do not live in poverty, as of 2018, African Americans were 2.5 times more likely to be in poverty than whites. The median white family had 10 times as much wealth as the median African American family. Escaping poverty in the U.S. is difficult, and racial difficulties mean that movement out of poverty for African Americans is much more challenging than it is for whites.

Over the past century, the issues of poverty and racism are not new and have remained real issues, and earlier attempts to resolve the associated issues have been inadequate. The following figure is from the U.S. Census Bureau, 2007–2011 American Community Survey, and reflects the percentage of the black alone population in poverty in the United States.

Servant Leadership

Theoretical leadership development has historically been used to explain observations, make sense or bring order to complexity, and solve problems people are facing. In 2006 researchers conducted a review of over 160 articles and books identifying 91 distinct attributes within the literature for defining leadership and there would likely be more today.

“probably more has been written and less is known about leadership than about any other topic in the behavioral sciences” (Bennis).

The world needs a different leadership approach and Servant Leadership is an emerging 21st Century model that holds potential answers for poverty and racism. This leadership theory promotes attributes of altruistic and compassionate love for others. Compassionate love is

“doing the right thing at the right time and for the right reason"(Winston).

When organizations adopt a servant leadership approach they measure effectiveness based on the growth of employees, customers, and the community. Servant leaders lead organizations to impact society positively. For example, a servant leader philosophy in an organization will focus attention on leader-follower relationships. This focus on people then leads to growing employees and, in return, growing the company.

Pioneering research in 2013 lead by Shruti Gupta found the organizational commitment to the poor and customer growth, has both a positive impact on organizational performance and poverty mitigation. When leaders get involved it makes a difference both in their organization and society. Do you agree or disagree, and why?


Barbuto, J. E., & Wheeler, D. W. (2006). Scale development and construct clarification of servant leadership. Group & Organization Management, 31(3), 300-326. doi:10.1177/1059601106287091

Bennis, W. G. (1959). Leadership theory and administrative behavior: The problem of authority. Administrative Science Quarterly, 4(3), 259-301. doi:10.2307/2390911

Gupta, S. (2013). Serving the "bottom of pyramid" - A servant leadership perspective. Journal of Leadership, Accountability and Ethics, 10(3), 98-106.

Jerneck, A. (2015). Understanding poverty. SAGE Open, 5(4) doi:10.1177/2158244015614875

Kuhn, T. S., & Hacking, I. (2012). The structure of scientific revolutions.

McCann, J. & Holt, R. (2010). Servant and sustainable leadership: An analysis in the manufacturing environment. Int. J. of Management Practice. 4. 134 - 148. doi:10.1504/IJMP.2010.033691.

Wagmiller, R., & Adelman, R. (2009). Childhood and intergenerational poverty: The long-term consequences of growing up poor. National Center for Children in Poverty.

Winston, B. E., & Patterson, K. (2006). An integrative definition of leadership. International Journal of Leadership Studies, 1(2), 6-66.

Servant Leadership Development

Learn how you can bring a virtual or in-person Servant Leadership Program to your organization:

Based on the best ideas from leadership gurus of today, leaders learn how to apply a head, heart, and hands approach to ancient principles that reinforce selfless service. This one year program for leadership teams includes a pre/post servant leadership 360, pre/post leadership style inventory, quarterly development workshops, and much more. "The signature of the greatest executives we studied is their humility" Jim Collins

About the Author:

Jeff's knowledge and expertise include leadership development, servant leadership, and coaching to grow individuals and organizations. Jeff has experience from start-ups to Fortune 50 public, Forbes 25 private, for-profit, and non-profit organizations across diverse industries. Jeff Doolittle is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI. He can be reached at or by calling (616) 803-9020. Visit his blog at for more ideas to stimulate individual, team, and organizational effectiveness.

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Grand Rapids, MI, USA