Who?!? ME?!?

A small offering for those of us who went from being low-income or another marginalized identity to leading institutions

Karla L. Monterroso
3 min readApr 20, 2023

I have found over and over again that our most dangerous leaders are ones who cannot recognize the difference in their power. I’ve often called this the “Who, me???” leader or a leader having a “Who, me???” moment. There are leaders who cannot and even, in some cases, refuse to acknowledge the power they have accrued over a long career. They are consistently shocked if someone has the temerity to tell them they have overreached with their power. Every piece of pushback is experienced as the violation of a vulnerable person instead of compassionate accountability for a leader with power.

It is easy to villainize and distance from this and it’s important to see how easy it can be to end up this way. You’ve worked so hard, your whole life, and have seen power equate deference. You’ve watched your counterparts be unchallenged and/or feared when they have decision making rights. You have had a marginalized identity in some way — racially, economically, socially — and have dreamed of the day you will have the kind of power that allows you the safety you have seen at the highest levels of power. Then you start making decisions that your team pushes back on, and you’re incensed. Why, when it was your turn, does no one respect you? “But I could NEVER do something inequitable, do you know what my life has been? WHO?!?! ME?!?!”

For many, that first sign of friction is a wakeup call — a harsh realization that they are not above the perils of power. For the “Who me???” leader, so deeply living in an identity that no longer matches their level of power — they are constantly overstepping and are agitated that anyone would believe they could be guilty of an abuse of power. Again, this comes from a fantasy of power that says that once we have it, we are entitled to all of its spoils and none of its responsibilities. That idea is a direct descendant to the feeling of victimization we can fall into as leaders when those spoils do not come whole cloth.

There are so many leaders that are being held accountable for wrongs they cannot understand. Our teams don’t have the access to language that helps them articulate what they see as wrong and our leaders don’t have the language to untangle what they did that was wrong. This creates situations where two parties are working as adversaries because they have no idea how to communicate the difficulties they are experiencing. How do you find each other when the design of power in this country is to stay invisible? We don’t fix things when they are invisible to us. Our lack of societal protections for workers puts individuals with power in the position to have to make 100 different and nebulous decisions where risk is the hot potato on the table. This would not be the case if we had larger systemic protections. We have passed the cognitive load of a society to those people instead of creating a structure that requires they honor the humanity of the folks that work for them.

A decade ago, I had a moment of realization that, although I still identified as a Latina from a low-income community, it had been over a decade since I had been low-income. My power had changed and because of that my power analysis needed to change alongside it. The tension between my internal self-image and the actual outer reality could impact how I lead. This would become one of the most important areas of personal growth I had as I went from leading departments to leading organizations.

Power is never agnostic — it helps or it hurts. Without a power analysis, you make moves that make sense to you at your level of risk, but could be hurting someone else. Denial does not serve us, especially when we have power.



Karla L. Monterroso

Leadership coach, strategist, racial equity advocate, Covid survivor, long covid, former CEO @Code2040, former @HealthLeadsNatl, @PeerForward, @CollegeTrack.