Professional Development: The Secret Sauce to an Effective Leader

Cindu Thomas-George
5 min readSep 23, 2022

Despite the widespread efforts to disrupt gender inequality within leadership roles across industries, women continue to face barriers to securing leadership positions. This is especially true for women of color. The covid pandemic has only exacerbated the barriers women face, with far fewer women in the workplace today when compared to the pre-Covid workforce. The great resignation (awakening) is a result of the unexpected chaos we have all endured in the last few years but also a direct result of poor leadership that can result in toxic workplace cultures that are disempowering and a threat to the well-being and psychological safety of employees.

Leaders have a responsibility to empower, mentor, and create an inclusive and supportive environment for their employees. However, sometimes they fail their employees because they lack the knowledge and skills needed to be an effective people leader. As a tenured faculty member with almost twenty years of experience in Higher Education- I have had countless bosses and have worked very closely with many of them to help execute inclusion and equity initiatives. A few of those leaders empowered, supported, and inspired me, while others disempowered, belittled, and disrespected me. If you know me personally, you know that I LOVE teaching college students and I would never trade my job for another profession. However, just a few years ago I found myself disengaged, distraught, and even considered leaving my career — all because of a toxic, narcissistic, and power-hungry leader I worked under.

As a woman of color in Higher Education, I have experienced my fair share of leaders who successfully got away with perpetuating sexism, racism, and ageism at my expense. These experiences were unfortunate and hurtful but they taught me to have a thick skin and helped me to be the resilient person I am today. However, there was one particular leader who did more damage than good. A few years ago, I worked under a woman of color who I was certain would be my champion and cheerleader but instead turned out to be an oppressor who created harm and trauma for me and others. The details of my experience warrant a chapter in a book, so I will just stop at saying that I’ve never experienced more pain or trauma in my career.

This leader has since moved on to a more prestigious position at a different institution and now that I’ve had some months to heal and reflect, I’ve come to realize that one of the reasons this leader was so disruptive was because she lacked the leadership characteristics and skills needed to be an effective, empathetic, inclusive, and engaging leader. The damage this leader created will likely have long-standing repercussions for the several employees who were negatively impacted by her toxic leadership style. However, the silver lining in this unfortunate situation is that I walked away with several valuable lessons.

One lesson that I want to amplify is that hiring a BIPOC leader does not always ensure that an organization will automatically become a more inclusive one- in fact, sometimes BIPOC leaders can do more harm than good to an organization’s culture. Internalized oppression, self-interest in accelerating one’s career, and White adjacency are all factors that can lead a BIPOC leader to perpetuate a toxic and racist workplace culture. Another lesson I took away from my experience is that not all leaders come into leadership roles with the skills that are essential in being an effective and empowering leader. The ability to cultivate an inclusive culture, emotional intelligence, empathy, and the ability to be curious and think outside of the box are all essential characteristics of a good leader. Even though not everyone walks into their leadership roles with these imperative skills, they can be developed and learned through professional development.

As a long-time educator who has designed and facilitated countless professional development experiences for my faculty peers and clients- I have witnessed firsthand the transformational power of education and the personal and professional growth that meaningful professional development can lead to. Because I intimately understand the immense benefits of developing oneself professionally, I actively seek out and engage in learning opportunities that enhance my knowledge and skills. I am confident that my career success is largely due to my ongoing investment in continued education. I believe that professional development is a lifelong process and the secret sauce to an effective leader. I am confident that if my former boss took the time to invest in her learning and worked to develop her leadership capabilities, she could be an inspiring and effective Higher Ed leader. The challenge is that organizational leaders like her typically have too much on their plates to prioritize professional development. Because leaders likely won’t carve out time to develop their leadership skills, I strongly believe that organizations should require professional development for leaders and those being groomed to take on leadership positions.

The experience I had with my former boss and the research that has proven year after year that women continue to face unfair barriers into leadership inspired me to team up with a few of my colleagues to create the Chicago Women’s Leadership Accelerator. The CWLA is a day of learning focused on emotional intelligence, inclusive leadership, and innovation. This accessible one-day conference has been designed to equip participants with knowledge and awareness to help develop empowering and inspirational leaders that will help deter the mass resignations that have taken place over the last year that disproportionately impact women in the workplace. Leadership matters and I want to help ensure that others do not have to experience the wrath and trauma of a toxic workplace leader the way I had to. I am hopeful that the CWLA can be a meaningful leadership program that helps to ensure that those who hold institutional power are equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to be effective, inclusive, and inspiring people leaders.

The CWLA is just one of many opportunities available to develop your leadership capabilities. If you are a leader or an emerging leader- I encourage you to seek out one professional development opportunity before the end of this year. Professional development options are more accessible than ever before. Webinars, virtual or in-person workshops, conferences, TED Talks, reading books and articles, listening to podcasts, and following credible thought leaders on Linked In are just some of the options you can choose from to level up your leadership. If you need some direction- drop me a message and I’ll be happy to help direct you to some meaningful professional development opportunities!

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Cindu Thomas-George

Cindu Thomas-George is the Founder and Principal Trainer of Shakti Diversity and Equity Training and a tenured Professor at the College of Lake County.