What Happens When We Fail to Embrace Our Power?
By: Nwamaka Agbo, CEO of the Kataly Foundation and Managing Director of the Restorative Economies Fund
Power and failure. These words seem incongruous at first — people with power rarely acknowledge their failures. But upon deeper reflection, power and failure are closely intertwined. Once you have power, what happens when you fail? Who holds you accountable? When you acknowledge failure, how does it impact the power you have?
As we close our failure series at Kataly, I feel deeply grateful to the team for sharing their reflections on this topic. Discussing the ways we have failed in our professional lives feels risky, particularly for people of color. I am honored that the people I work with leaned into this exercise with vulnerability, radical honesty, and courage, and I want to reciprocate with my own reflection on power and failure.
I have always regarded myself as powerful — someone capable of creating and holding big visions while also being able to accomplish detailed tasks. At the same time, I have struggled with seeing myself as a person with power.
Given my leadership role as the CEO of Kataly, not seeing myself as holding power can impact both my own ability to lead, and the experience of people on my team. I am all too aware that typically, when society envisions a powerful person, and particularly in philanthropy, most people do not think of people who look like me or who have the type of background and lived experience that I do. This reality means I have to actively and intentionally work to recognize my power, claim my authority, and assert my leadership.
Doing so has required me to carve out a path for how to lead a foundation with the values that Kataly holds, while not exercising the traditional type of leadership that can be rooted in dominating, invisibilizing, and exploiting the contributions of the broader team. My fear of falling victim to such a leadership style, combined with sometimes being overlooked or underestimated in my position, has led me to sometimes shy away from my authority and power at Kataly. This failure to embrace my power impacts both my own self-esteem and my leadership.
If you’ve been following our failure series, you likely know that Kataly is structured so that our grantmaking decisions are made by our program team of practitioner-funders — people who come from a lived and movement experience of doing the work on the ground in the types of communities and organizations we support. Unlike most foundations, Kataly’s board members and myself as the CEO do not set the grantmaking strategies or determine which grantees receive funding or at what amounts. Because of the decision-making power the team holds, I naively assumed that I would not have to confront and address the typical power dynamics that are inherent in philanthropy.
Most of us are likely familiar with the concept of imposter syndrome. The reason it is a real phenomenon is because we repeatedly receive images and messages that people who do not look a certain way or have a certain pedigree are not capable of accomplishing certain feats or being successful in certain positions. When we give into these narratives rather than challenging and overcoming them, they can become self-fulling in a way that impacts ourselves and those that rely on us.
While I never could have envisioned that leading an organization like Kataly was possible for me, giving into the weight and fears of my own deeply held imposter syndrome does a disservice to myself, and the communities that have advocated for someone like me to be in a leadership position such as this. Further, shrinking into a stance of doubt and smallness makes it more challenging for me to lead our team with decisive clarity and direction, which is essential for an organization that is trying to radically challenge traditional philanthropy.
While setting the grantmaking strategies and determining the grant docket for each program are some of the most significant decisions that Kataly makes, they are not the only decisions. There are so many other choices–about the foundation’s operations, finances, strategic partnerships, and other areas that impact our grantmaking and non-extractive investments.
Due to my own uncertainty and self-questioning, there have been times when I have failed to fully own my role as CEO and step into the full power of my leadership role, and have failed to be clear about my authority as the final decision maker on certain issues. This lack of clarity can create confusion and be a source of frustration for the team.
I aim to be a leader who practices collaboration and inclusion, and these are values held by the Foundation. But, there are times when decisions are not jointly made and I am making the final call. It can be frustrating for people when they are under the assumption that something will be a joint decision, when in reality they are being consulted for their input, assessment, and recommendations. Lack of transparency about who the final decider is on any issue can leave staff feeling confused and cause them to question their own leadership and role in the foundation.
During the short time that I’ve been leading Kataly, I’ve learned that downplaying my role and abdicating my power and authority does not actually redistribute power to others. If anything, doing so creates more uncertainty, which is what can foster distrust and discontent among a team. So, returning to simple and brilliant management tools like the DARCI or MOCHA have allowed me to be clear about when I am making a final decision for the organization and how I’m inviting staff to contribute to shaping that decision.
This clarity helps to deepen our organizational commitment to transparency, which in turn deepens trust, clarifies communication, and actually serves to share power with the team, rather than power under or over them. When we are clear and transparent with those that we work with, it gives them the information and permission that they need to make well-informed choices about their work and creates clarity about the areas where they can exercise their own authority and leadership, or lean into direction from the organization’s leadership to guide their work.
Everyday I am learning and reminded of how important it is for each team member of Kataly to be in their role and position, including myself. Reflecting on this area of growth in my leadership at the Foundation has shed light on the ongoing healing work that I need to do in order to lead Kataly with the deep care and clarity that is required for us to achieve our mission. While sharing this insecurity and failure is deeply vulnerable and personal, my hope is that it demonstrates my loving commitment to the Kataly team and our grantees. I want to create space for all of us to show up in our full humanity, with both our greatness and our flaws. I believe this is how we individually and collectively own our responsibility to grow and heal, so that we can shift cultures and truly transform systems in return.
This blog post is a part of a series from the Kataly Foundation on failure and philanthropy. Find the full series here.