Why Leaders Must Find & Create Belonging

The Secret to Getting Your Ideas Heard & Impacting the World

This post originally appeared on Medium

Why are some people able to make a difference, and other people give up on their own ideas?

For a long time, I would listen to authors and those in the management circuit for answers and found myself frustrated. Based on their answers, you would think it’s about owning your original ideas, showing grit, and persevering to reach a proverbial tipping point. This made it sound like success is about being brave enough or bold enough to, in Nike’s language, just DO IT. It sounds so … personal.

Something was missing in that answer, but it took me a while to understand what it was. Based on four years of deep research, what I now understand is this:

What affects someone’s ability to contribute that which ONLY they can… is not simply personal boldness, but whether they belong.

If You’re Not ALREADY powerful…

It was digging around the best research from sociology, psychology, and anthropology that revealed what matters: anytime you’re less than 15% of the majority dominant group, you can be easily dismissed as too “weird”, or too “wild” and so you conform…

If you are…

  • The only person under 30, and everyone else is nearly 50
  • The only woman at a corporate board meeting of mostly men
  • The entrepreneurial type in a world of corporate drones

…Any of us, actually, MOST OF US can be in situations and made to feel “ the other”, and thus never feel safe enough to bring your bestest, boldest, biggest ideas out. It’s not gender specific or color specific but POWER-related.

When you’re deemed the “ Other,” to choose to give up your fresh ideas to conform & fit into the group is not even a choice. Not really. It’s simply a matter of survival. It’ s how the world works. To crack the code of belonging, you’ll suppress the things that get in the way. You’ll squeeze yourself into too small a space, and your fresh perspective and original ideas are either deferred — in the best of cases — or suffocated to death, in the worst.

Change How We Belong, Change What We Can Do

When we change the way we belong, we change what can do. The key word here is “WE”. Surely that is personal but it is also deeply communal.

Take these three examples:

Kimberly Bryant, Black Girls Code

Kimberly & Kai Bryant at SXSW (with Nilofer Merchant)

When Kimberly Bryant landed a job as an engineer for DuPont, she was elated and eager to work with interesting peers. But once there, her manager openly introduced her as a “ two-fer”, pointing out she was a black woman in tech, as if it were a lottery jackpot moment. This made Kim really uncomfortable because it focused on her otherness, not what united her to her peer group — onlyness — of engineers and thus shaped her ability to belong.

When her daughter Kai started learning to code at school, Kim was sad, yet not quite surprised that the predominantly male and white school culture was equally otherizing to Kai. Kim then gathered together a bunch of kids and started a program that would come to be called Black Girls Code, which has already trained 10,000 girls. There will be 1.4 million new jobs in coding by 2020, and Kim wanted to make sure that her daughter and girls like her would help shape the future of tech. It was moms like Kim who asked “can you come to my city”, “can I borrow your curriculum” and so pulled the idea into the future. Kim was shown how she didn’t belong at Dupont but accomplished so much for the women in tech sector when she found those with whom she did belong.


Alex Hillman, Indy Hall

Alex Hillman, Indy Hall Founder

At 23, Alex Hillman was living in Philadelphia, working as a web-developer. Lacking a community of people equally geeky and creative, he stayed home most nights, lonely, as he ate takeout hunched over his computer. Alex was about to move out West to California, thinking maybe his fellow creative hackers, makers, and geeks were all out there, when his job offer fell through. And, it occurred to him that he loved Philly.

So, in different workshops, gatherings and coffee shops around the city, he sought out his people, one by one. Together, they built their own co-working facility in Philly called Indy Hall where they could problem-solve and socialize. But mostly they have the kind of creative work colleagues they wanted without having to give up their home town. Alex built a whole new community by intentionally gathering people together who cared about the same thing as him. As he found his people, he also found his power.


Zach Wahls, Boy Scouts for Equality

Zach Wahls, Boy Scouts For Equality Leader

Zach Wahls was born in Iowa City, Iowa. Growing up he was like most other boys he knew: he loved sports, dirt, cars and the Boy Scouts. But slowly and surely, he figured out what that something about him was different. You see, Zach was one of the first babies born to two women using IVF, or in-vitro fertilization. Back then, they were called test-tube babies.

When he explained at Boy Scouts that he had two moms, he was told that violated policies. Ultimately Zach — just a teenager — connected with other Scouts who were facing similar discrimination, and together, in their shared onlyness they were able to convince the national organization, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), to change its policies to become more inclusive.

“Just Do It” Culture Benefits Those Already In Power

These stories of Kim, Alex, and Zach, show us the power of Onlyness. WHEN WE CHANGE THE WAY WE BELONG, WE CHANGE WHAT WE CAN DO. Each of them stood in that spot in the world ONLY they stood in, a place of strength despite their status. And from that spot, they found those who equally cared. Women, people of color, young people, member of the LGBTQ communities — these are groups of people whose ideas are typically the ones dismissed. But as they found “their people” who shared not sameness but shared purpose… things changed. The “we” was shaped around an idea, and so…In their shared purpose… their ONLYNESS, they had the lever to shift the world, and by small dents and big, reshape the world around them.


Anytime you hear someone saying “be more bold” or “own your original ideas” without acknowledging that none of us do that by ourselves, realize they’re selling you a mirage, a myth, a lie.

A mirage that perpetuates those who are ALREADY in power, those who ALREADY fit the dominant majority narrative. They don’t mean to distort or disguise the actual path forward; it’s far more likely they themselves ALREADY are the dominant majority narrative so they don’t see this as necessary pre-condition to understand and explain more fully.

Belong With Your Purpose, With Each Other

That’s what makes onlyness such a breakthrough idea for those 60-some percent of the population who aren’t white, or male and don’t ALREADY fit the existing power structure. This shift in focus changes how you lead. When you create ways for people to belong, it changes what people can contribute.AND, more to the point, this shift in focuses changes what we create, how we innovate, what we build next.

It’s an act that is both so obvious, and yet incredibly revolutionary …at the same time.

Kimberly, Alex, and Zach might have been powerless by many standard markers, yet they became valuable and powerful by their passion and purpose WITH those who shared that passion.

And this is not just a personal, singular benefit.

Kim solved the thing for her daughter, but also for her industry and then shaped how people of color could participate in the jobs for the future. Alex solved his personal job needs, but also created a hub for other geeky creative types and then helped his city become more vibrant. Zach not only helped kids feel okay about their god-given sexuality, he helped organizations realize that discrimination is not okay, and by doing so makes this world we live in more inclusive.


And, by doing so, Kimberly, Alex and Zach show us how to do the same.

And, they show us what leadership needs to address if they want the same results.

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