Now more than ever, we need authentic leaders — those that embrace the fullness of who they are so that they can use all of their gifts and talents to create unique movements for good.
To help us all tap into our potential for this kind of leadership, I’ll be sharing a series of conversations with some of the most authentic leaders I know. And I’m thrilled to kick off this series with Katrina Huffman. A longtime leader in the nonprofit world, Katrina is the executive leader at Rapha Alliance Ministries in New York, which helps nurture churches in the U.S., the Caribbean and West Africa. Katrina is also the creator of the [email protected] “digital fellowship hall” to discuss social justice on Instagram.
Katrina shared with me what it means to grow into an authentic leader and the resources and role models that have guided her path. (Our conversation is edited slightly for length and clarity.)
How do you describe or define authentic leadership?
For me, an authentic leader is someone who is aware of her own soul — the good, bad, and ugly of it — and who serves up a healthy dose of grace for herself when she experiences its variety. She grants others the same grace she accords herself.
An authentic leader has a keen sense of self-awareness by remaining a vigilant observer of her own behaviors, as well as the feelings that may drive them. She respects those feelings, manages them and uses them to relate to others.
What brought you to your specific career path?
Since leaving a lucrative career in business management consulting in my late 20s and pivoting to a pathway that allowed me to live my values, I have been fortunate to create roles for myself in both religious corporations and in community-based organizations that were an expression of my activism and my passion for social justice.
For almost two decades, I have been able to step into each day with the autonomy to strategize, collaborate and implement programs and initiatives.
Leveraging my graduate degree in public administration and my leadership experience in NYC’s youth development space as both an executive and capacity builder, I am currently the chief financial officer for two Christian organizations based in New York while working with churches in various parts of the nation, the Caribbean and West Africa.
Since 2001, we have raised approximately $500,000, both cash and in-kind, for four medical missions and engaged roughly 1,000 volunteers to deliver medical and dental services, as well as pharmaceuticals, to over 12,000 people. Today, we continue to fundraise to help build a school in Monrovia, Liberia.
Leaders turn moments into movements. Who is a #Firestarter that has influenced your career?
Several #Firestarters have influenced my career – Jesus Christ, Geoffrey Canada, Angela Davis, Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw, to name a few.
Have you always been an authentic leader?
I am still growing in my authenticity. As long as I am alive, I will grow. Anyone or anything that does not grow is dead.
So, no, I have not always been an authentic leader. I came of age while working in a corporate setting where “masking” was the order of the day.
The older I became, and the deeper I grew in my faith, the more comfortable I became with showing all of myself. Today people will say, “With Katrina, what you see is what you get.”
How do you remain authentic without crossing the line into becoming unprofessional?
Seeing every human being as a soul helps me to remain authentic. I am also keenly aware that the leadership role brings with it a responsibility to care for others’ worth — perhaps more than they do. In so doing, I regard them as not just people, but growing people and determine how I want to make my mark to advance their career or any project they are working on. Bearing in mind that my role is to connect with their advancement helps me to speak words and amplify behaviors they can model when they get to their next level.
Can you share the most interesting story relating to authentic leadership that has happened to you since you started your career?
I had to learn my authentic self is not always celebrated in some circles – Black, white or otherwise. My strength, my confidence, my voice have at times been seen as intimidating, angry or condescending. The commitment to these misunderstandings has made me tired.
I am a data-driven leader committed to achieving the results that help the organizations I run or work for reach their missions. Once I was in a role where my programs were expanding and successful in such efficient ways that we were able to contain costs. At that time, I held a leadership position in a nonprofit organization and had a colleague who was responsible for fundraising, but oftentimes fell shy of the annual goals.
There was a point where she expressed ire for the executive sponsorships of my expanded programs and asked that I assist with fundraising as well. I did. When I worked with her team to apply for a corporate grant for a new program, I found out that she failed to complete the application and we were passed over for the grant.
She came to my office to say, “Sorry, but the company declined us.” Because of my network, I was able to reach out to the company to get more information about how we could be competitive for the grant the following year. I found out we could actually get the grant if we just completed the application. We did. The organization is still receiving that grant today, and in higher increments.
I am thankful every day for my tribe because they continue to encourage me to be myself while gently calibrating to allow others who may be more insecure to experience the best of me at all times, or as frequently as they will allow themselves to experience me.
How do you keep yourself grounded?
I pray. I box. I listen to great sermons. I talk to people who keep it real. I listen to others’ stories. I spend time in nature, alone.
What advice would you give to readers about how to create an authentic workplace or team culture?
To create and sustain an authentic workplace, empathy must be encouraged, modeled, and measured.
The measuring part is super difficult and could lead to uncomfortable subjectivism. Nonetheless, it is important to accept and appreciate people for who they are in the moment but not hold them hostage there. Grant them the liberty to be different the next day. Doing this consistently will create an indomitable atmosphere of trust, engagement and productivity.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The week before George Floyd was murdered, I was halfway through Dr. Obery Hendricks’ book “The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of the Teachings of Jesus and How They Have Been Corrupted.”
This book became less academic and more of a roadmap for my integrated Christian response to processing the cold murder of Mr. Floyd and too many Black ministers’ refusal to not only declare it as evil but to take obvious measures to respond.
My own pastor’s response shook me into action. While her posture struck a dissonant chord in my heart, I turned to social media to educate my friends and family on the Bible’s constant and consistent focus on justice for the oppressed and God’s vindication of them.
That soon evolved into a weekly forum — [email protected] — for folks who wanted to sort out their feelings and share resources as they vetted their ideas, as well as encourage each other in both their short-term and long-term actions in response to the hostility.
The outcome for me was to host two online events to educate Millennials and GenZs on the power of their votes. Between events, I publish a weekly Mailchimp to inform readers on the voting process and fighting voter suppression and encouraging them to register themselves, their families, and their friends and foes to vote. “All souls to the polls” is the goal.
The [email protected] Instagram page is meant to share historical visuals to put into perspective what this current moment means now, and has meant, as well as our power to reshape history through our votes and activism.
From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to support those around us who want to become more authentic?
1. Know your values, live your values, talk your values and others will respect your values.
2. Test all assumptions; ask questions to gain clarity.
3. Break bread often.
4. Have a way to step into their world and bring them into yours (professionally at least), offer and receive feedback and to be accountable.
5. Have your tribe — not a fan club, but a tribe.
What resources you would suggest for learning to live more authentically?
Identify role models who resonate with you as authentic. Read or watch everything they do. If they are close, spend time with them listening to their story and gleaning lessons. Authenticity is an experience. Take in how you experience them and begin to listen for how others experience you.
You are a #firestarter, a person who is a change-maker and a person of great influence. If you could start a movement for social good, what would it be?
A movement I would start would entail music — a universal transporter of culture, language, and rhythm — as a way to bring disparate audiences into oneness.
We saw the meaningful role music played in passing along messages for the Underground Railroad (conductor: Harriet Tubman). The music of Motown played in the ears of people of various backgrounds and walks of life in the turbulent ’60s, and hip-hop continues to be a platform that reaches the hearts, creativity and hips of young people across all continents.
With this in mind, I would build a global platform for a multi-generational, multiracial, socially conscious people who want to work across continents to create (r)evolutionary lyrics that bring people together to understand and teach others’ experiences while codifying it, setting them to music and sharing them on digital platforms. Music is timeless. It informs the heart and possibly moves the hands toward building an equitable world, and it is accessible to all.
Can you please give us your favorite “life lesson” quote? How has that quote been relevant in your life?
C.S. Lewis once said, “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” My whole life is this quote.
I cannot determine my family. But I can make the most of what they gave me having migrated from Mississippi to NYC and rearing me in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, during the crack-cocaine era. While I was considered a “tough kid,” through life experiences I was able to shed some of the hard shell required at that time and repurpose it as resilience in life, in spiritual matters and in my career choices.
Who I am today is not who I was growing up. And it will not be who I am when I transition from this life. I came into the world with nothing, but I will leave with a legacy — a little piece of myself in every soul I am favored to touch.
How can readers follow you on social media?
LinkedIn: Katrina Huffman