Bringing your whole self to work: Building mentally healthy #LGBT Leaders


Versions of this blog will be carried by the Centre for Mental Health and the Public Sector People Management Association’s Leadership Essentials resource.

Those of you who know me well know I have an interest in applying what Psychology has to say on becoming better leaders, partly in the hope that I will do better as a Leader too. Some folk find leadership psychology fluffy. I find good leadership psychology compelling and helpful. And given it’s pride month I thought I’d share some perspectives on LGBT Leadership as I continue to run some workshops for LGBT leaders locally.

And before we start no, I’m not sure that LGB leadership can actually be lumped together meaningfully, let alone LGBT+ but with that provision, here are some thoughts.

I’ve worked in a number of contexts (working with public health aspiring leaders, community sector, faith groups and lgbt aspiring leaders.) There are some valuable lessons listening to and learning from other leaders,  and reading the literature has taught me. And I’d like to share them.

The bottom line

Why am I writing this? Because if we really believe we need to bring our whole selves to work, I worry that some current models of LGBT leadership are – entirely unintentionally –  at risk of setting people up not to be resilient but rather to burn out from stress or the weight of difficult expectations, or be victimised or marginalised.

Setting LGBT Leaders up to fail

There’s sometimes a heavy reliance in LGBT leadership discourses on an advocacy model of leadership which at least supposes a “go and transform your organisations” model of leadership . This has been repeatedly criticised in the work of other psychologists and authors as a narrow conceptualisation of a model of transformational styles of leadership. ( Currie and Lockett; Lee, 2014; ) I’ve been alarmed that some leadership sessions aimed at LGBT leaders send them out almost in a Messianic way to change their organisation and the world, putting a very heavy demand on them.

Not only do such models risk damaging the leader who “fails” in transformation, they fail to ignore the complex social aspects of how organisations work, and how a culture which is hostile to sexuality, gender orientation, disability or faith is mediated in multiple ways.( Buchanan and Badham, 2008.)

While much of the literature on LGBT leadership focuses on the need for affirmative models, it seems to me to be limited in how well it addresses the complex interplay of personal identity, context and resilience in the context of trying to deliver change.  We don’t need any more heroic sacrifices. (Fassinger et al, 2010)

Moving beyond Super-person

So we need to move beyond the leader as super-person. Too many LGBT models still seem to assume this.

I’ve worked a lot with Catholic and Anglican vowed religious orders in the last thirteen years, they’ve usually ditched these models in favour of leaders in relationship and in community, with (not before time) a strong self-care element.  Some LGBT leadership models I have seen haven’t learned these lessons.

Many public sector agencies are now moving beyond or nuancing purely transformational leadership styles and models. In particular, many of the models of leadership now being used rely on knowing your self, knowing how you work with others and knowing your context. These are multifaceted aspects which some of the research literature and some of the discourses on LGBT leadership seems to leave unconsidered.

Added work for LGBT Leaders

There is also an added context for LGBT folks. Being, becoming, assimilating and uniting one’s identity as a person is hard work. And it’s usually an unfinished work because we are always unfinished people. Psychologists have produced models for the work of identity assimilation and integration. My preferred model of LGBT identity is still the CASS model because of its utility (Cass, 1979) but more recent work suggests, that while every LGBT identity development model has its drawbacks, the work of becoming authentically and fully “me” or “you” is never finished. Phillip Hammack’s recent blog is an eloquent statement of some of these issues. And if that has implications for education, it has to have implications for leadership. (Bilodeau and Renn, 2005; Kaufman et al, 2004.) Hence LGBT leaders, like any leaders, are works in progress. 

And so, the extra work of identity integration, with its added stresses of where we are in our lifecourse can and do impact -positively and negatively, on our leadership journey, with implications for ourselves and those contexts we seek to lead in.  We have to factor this into leadership development. We haven’t. And not just for LGBT leaders but for everyone.

The inadequacies of some LGBT leadership models

To me this is where the models of leadership most open to LGBT people fall down. They have been:

  • the Advocate (demands energy and resilience and sometimes heroic sacrifice),
  • the safe space (with the problem of becoming ghettoised or even just irrelevant to the organisation)
  • the Sage or Adviser (fount of all knowledge, demands you are perfect and easy to be marginalised)
  • the Role model (with its straightjacket of perfection meaning you can’t admit to being human and on the journey of development.)

And for every transformational leader who has done something wonderful, there may be another potential leader who has much value to bring but may feel put off from leading because they are not “like” the hero model and feel they can’t be “good enough” to lead.

Finding a different organising model

While all of the models of change I’ve mentioned above may be potentially useful at times, they all have limits. My own work with aspiring leaders, and the recent journey I have been on thanks to the Health Foundation, has convinced me of the value of the Ashridge Hult model of Leadership. Personal, Interpersonal, Technical (how much you know the job stuff) and contextual (how well you understand your organizational and system context) are all important.


© Copyright, Ashridge Hult

That means we have to have leaders who can work with who they are and what they are across all four domains.

In a homophobic and complex organisation, the advocacy and transformational model may be setting up the LGBT leader for victimisation with its major mental health consequences. I wonder how that is different from just institutionalising homophobia by creating leaders who are scapegoats and sacrifices, while avoiding true change for inclusion.

Shared issues across different diversities

I could say the same about proper inclusion of disabled leaders and workers. And I could say the same about  including faith, which remains too much a dirty word in today’s equality context. There’s a big aside here about complex identity which is for another time. Suffice it to say that I argued in a paper to an Equality and Human Rights Round Table in 2015, that we know our identities are mostly complex.

We are never simply one “protected characteristic” and this is a poor way to help humans bring their whole selves to work, study or service. When there are so many LGBT people who see their nationality or lived disability, religious belief or ethnicity as equally salient in their identity to their sexuality why are we so rubbish at coping with organizational equality when it comes to this.

We privatise faith, for example, denying the importance of spirituality to workplaces (Poole, 2009) but publicly celebrate sexuality; or work hard on LGBT issues and ignore our gender pay gap or disability inclusion. Bringing your whole self to work needs to mean that. What kind of signal does it send to an LGBT Sikh that your sexuality is welcome but your faith stays in the drawer?

Where next?

We have to start with the realisation that leaders are made, developed, always under development and always at least partly dependent on their journey. That’s why for me, Eve Poole’s work (2017) on Leadersmithing as an ongoing curated journey is a better model than almost any other for LGBT leaders to adopt. But that’s just my take.

If we are to build organisations where we can truly bring our whole selves to work, and if we are to create a generation of mentally resilient, healthy and effective LGBT leaders, we have some work to do. And here are some of my questions or way markers for the next bit of this journey.

I’ll be sharing more with some more LGBT leadership workshops for our local partnerships later in the year.

Waymarks for organisations

  1. We need to focus on models of leadership which support people being healthy and whole as well as human. That means
    • we must support people become who they are as leaders not fit them into a constraining mould.
    • The four domains model is a better model because it recognises leadership in organisations is complex, equality and diversity is complex and so are organisations.
    • We need to “complexify” not simplify leadership to support aspiring leaders be authentic as people and authentic in the organisations they work in. We don’t need another hero.
  2. We need models of leadership which collectivise the journey of inclusion in organisations, not rely on powerful transformational heroes
  3. We need to understand better as organisations complex diversity. If any aspect of diversity is privatised in an organisation, then they all are.

Questions for LGBT+ leaders

Here are some questions for LGBT Leaders to ponder on their journey.

  • Is it safe to bring myself to work?
  • Is it safe for others? How do I make it so?
  • Am I OK with being me?
  • What do I do about those who are not?
  • How do my and other’s biases get in the way?
  • What are the barriers and stepping-stones?
  • How do I flex my style effectively to be a leader?
  • How does my authorising environment (i.e. the context I am in and what it allows me to do) prevent or help me?
  • What does this mean for me, for the authorising environment and for other leaders?

Questions for Researchers

Here are some questions of issues which need researching.

  1. How do we articulate a suitably nuanced leadership model which takes into account the best of LGBT studies and the best of Leadership Psychology
  2. How do we articulate the implications of this for policy, practice, employers and education of future and existing leaders?
  3. Without gliding over problems, can we take a positive psychology approach to this based on human and organisational flourishing? What would that look like?


Bilodeau, B. L. and Renn, K. A. (2005), Analysis of LGBT identity development models and implications for practice. New Directions for Student Services, 2005: 25-39. doi:10.1002/ss.171

Buchanan, D. and Badham, R. (2008). Power, politics, and organizational change. Los Angeles: SAGE.

Cass, V. (1979). Homosexual identity formation: A theoretical model. Journal of Homosexuality, 4 (3), 219-235.

Currie, G., & Lockett, A. (2007). A critique of transformational leadership: Moral, professional and contingent dimensions of leadership within public services organizations. Human Relations, 60(2), 341–370.

Fassinger, R; Shullman, S and Stevenson, M (2010 Toward an Affirmative Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Leadership Paradigm. American Psychologist. 65(3):201-215, April 2010.

Kaufman, Joanne and Johnson, Cathryn (2004) Stigmatized Individuals and the Process of Identity, The Sociological Quarterly, 45 (4), 807–33

Lee M. (2014), “Transformational Leadership: Is It Time For A Recall?”, International Journal of Management and Applied Research, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 17-29.

McManus, J (2015) Healthcare provision in relation to faith issues: issues for healthcare employers Paper for the Equality and Human Rights Commission Invited Rountable on Religion and Health, 23 rd July 2015

Poole, Eve. (2009). Organisational Spirituality – A Literature Review. Journal of Business Ethics. 84. 577-588. 10.1007/s10551-008-9726-z.

Poole, E (2017) Leadersmithing. London: Bloombsury.


%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close