THE BLOG

Finding Ourselves in Translation

03/03/2015 08:04 am ET | Updated May 03, 2015

By Justine Lutterodt

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My life has been defined by straddling multiple identities. As a child growing up in the U.S. with a white English mother and a black Ghanaian father, I felt this tension acutely. I remember discovering in sixth grade that I had been classified by the school system as white and feeling upset. There was no biracial category at the time. I was equally concerned when the school principal instructed me to list myself as black, citing categorization laws from the times of slavery. It felt as though I was being asked to deny one of my parents, something I refused to do.

My refusal to prioritize one side of my identity over another led to unusual switching behavior. At school I attempted (unsuccessfully) to be a "normal" American teenager. I cobbled together hand-me-downs that resembled the latest fashion and tried hard to appear easygoing in order to blend in with the crowd. However, when I arrived home, there was an instant transformation. The makeup came off; the hair was pulled back. I returned to life in a family of foreigners, where I was in training to follow in my father's footsteps as a mathematician. Back then, the strain of living a double life felt like a burden -- at times a heavy one that was quite isolating.

Nowadays, this burden feels more like a gift. My intimate familiarity with the worlds of black/white, foreign/national, academic/practitioner, etc., enables me to act as a bridge. Because I am reasonably fluent in the values held and language used by both sides, I am well-positioned to facilitate dialogue and understanding across groups. Through the process of translation I feel empowered, I learn new things about myself, and I end up feeling more complete.

Over time, I have come to appreciate that everyone has a plurality of identities, whether they realize it or not. Some identities are imposed by biology or social expectation (e.g., gender, race), whilst others arise from experiences and relationships. In my own case, it is interesting to acknowledge the Dutch part of my identity. This has emerged from the presumption frequently made about the origin of my last name coupled with my experience living in Amsterdam. As a result, I bond easily with Dutch people I meet in London. Similarly, my experience as a volunteer suicide counselor caused me to develop an extra level of sensitivity towards those with mental illness. I now cringe when I hear ignorant comments and feel compelled to go into translation mode.

As Director of the Centre for Synchronous Leadership, I am privy to the inner worlds of many senior business leaders. It is especially fascinating to explore the complex identities of those who otherwise appear mainstream. This is often an important gateway to their learning process. By surfacing and translating across these identities, I am able to help them gain powerful insights about themselves, their colleagues, and external stakeholders.

Their story also forms a new aspect of my own identity -- a perspective I now understand, a voice I can no longer deny. For instance, from my experience coaching numerous male leaders, I have gained new muscles of appreciation for the baggage society imposes on men. Whereas before I was a feminist, I would now say that I am also very much a "masculist." This enhanced perspective has, in turn, made me more effective at communicating with previously unreceptive male leaders about the challenges of their female counterparts.

At the Centre, part of our practice is dedicated to working with Changemakers -- individual leaders who aspire to trigger systemic change. The resilience required to realize this sort of aspiration is tremendous, so genuine Changemakers tend to be extremely passionate. Typically their own story has led them to see something that few others can see so clearly, and to feel a sense of urgency to act. Given these factors, it can be tempting to define the world in terms of "us" (those with a similar perspective) and "them" (those who see things differently). However, the most effective Changemakers are those who take the time to understand the plurality of different perspectives and, through translation, construct a shared vision that speaks to the values of all.

These themes will be addressed in more detail through the Pioneers for Change Fellowship kicking off on March 23 and 24, 2015, in London. Pioneers for Change is an initiative of Adessy Associates.

Justine Lutterodt FRSA is Founder and Director of the Centre for Synchronous Leadership. She is passionate about helping clients achieve success on their own terms while staying strategically and emotionally "in sync" with the needs of colleagues, their organization, and greater society. Justine's project work has been recognized for its innovative design and high impact, receiving Business in the Community awards in 2013 and 2014. She brings to her practice over 13 years of experience working with senior leaders from professional services and Fortune 500 companies.

Outside CSL client and community work Justine is a regular conference speaker, an occasional lecturer at LSE, and a contributor to several community initiatives, such as Your Future, Your Ambition. She is an active member of the advisory board for UEL's School of Business and Law and a governor for the Powerlist Foundation College. Justine is a judge for Opportunity Now and the Asian Professional Awards. Finally she is a co-founder of the Africa Women's Circle, a founding member of the BAME Network of Networks (TNON) and a member of the Network for Sustainable Financial Networks.

Justine holds an MSc from LSE in social and organizational psychology and a B.A. from Yale in mathematics and philosophy, both with distinction.