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Racial Biases in Leadership

While playing varsity football in college, Andrew Carton "became aware of certain racial biases," as he put it. Later, as a graduate student at Duke, Carton discussed those experiences with Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, a Duke professor whose work included researching bias in the workplace. Their conversations led them to collaborate on a study recently published in The Academy of Management Journal. The findings show how racial stereotypes influence the way we judge leaders.

Carton and Rosette analyzed newspaper coverage of 113 college football quarterbacks during the 2007 season. They found that news articles tended to attribute a winning team's success to its quarterback's intellect when that player was white, while crediting the quarterback's athletic ability when he was African American. Conversely, African American quarterbacks were likely to be criticized for bad decision making when their teams lost, whereas white quarterbacks were said to have weak throwing arms or limited agility.

According to the researchers, the study's findings carry over to the business world. "Quarterbacks are a good focus for any research on leadership," says Carton, "because they have an executive role on the field that is unique in sports. No other position in sports is equated with leadership as much as the quarterback in football."

Simply put, when white leaders succeed, we assume it is because of their intelligence; but when African American leaders succeed, we imagine it is for reasons other than intelligence.

Overcoming those stereotypes among their colleagues and subordinates is, as Carton puts it, "an additional burden that Black leaders will likely have to bear," and it starts with being vocal about their qualifications, aptitude, and experience. Unfortunately, adds Carton, "success is not enough to change stereotypes."
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