Sincerely, Leaders of Color: How to lead in a Kobayashi Maru scenario

Leaders of color are used to a no-win situation. What doesn’t break us only makes us stronger!

A quote from the author, Paul Cheung, that says, "Systems of inequality don’t suddenly go away once we become leaders. They often get magnified."

(Background photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan on Unsplash)

About this series: Sincerely, Leaders of Color is written for everyone in the journalism industry who cares about creating a more supportive environment for journalists of color to do their best work. Have a question for the team? Drop it here and watch for it in a future column. This column is proudly sponsored by the Executive Program and the Tow Knight Center at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, and our guest writers budget is sponsored by The American Press Institute.

In Star Trek lexicon, a Kobayashi Maru is a no-win scenario.

To provide some context, it’s a Starfleet Academy training simulation where the officer must decide if they should rescue the Kobayashi Maru, a civilian ship in distress, or leave it to destruction. If the officer attempts a rescue, they subject their ship and crew to an insurmountable attack from the enemy where chances of survival are abysmal. If they don’t attempt the rescue, they have to live with the moral consequences of standing by and doing nothing to save innocent lives.

What does this have to do with leaders of color?

In talking to many of my peers, I’ve learned I’m not alone among leaders of color in encountering Kobayashi Maru situations. In a 2019 Race to Lead report, many nonprofit leaders of color noted that the glass cliff is an all-too-common reality; these leaders are handed power only when the organization is in crisis. Ascending to an executive position does not end a leader’s struggles with racism, and sometimes it increases them. Systems of inequality don’t suddenly go away once we become leaders. They often get magnified.

Leaders of color don’t get a honeymoon period to manifest their vision because they have to stabilize the organization or product. For example, since being appointed CEO for The Center for Public Integrity in August of 2021, I’ve been repeatedly reminded by funders that they want to wait and see what results I can deliver first before making an investment–due to past issues that have nothing to do with me. These scenarios compel a no-win choice: Try to deliver immediate results, which can be flawed due to the lack of time and resources, or shape a powerful, long-term vision and strategy, that funders and donors may not have the patience to support.

Simultaneously, we face internal pressure and challenges. Our colleagues, especially colleagues of color, hold us to a higher standard because everyone assumes we have the power to change a system that has been inequitable for decades in months, weeks or even days. If we don’t deliver what our colleagues expect, we go from camaraderie to being “the Man.” Except we don’t have the perks of “the Man,” starting with the time and grace to prototype solutions and make mistakes.

Becoming a leader of color is hard. Once there, it’s lonely. Just how lonely can it be? Read last month’s column by Emma Carew Grovum.

The pressures from outside and within can be suffocating and make you feel as if you’ve been dealt a Kobayashi Maru situation. You might even question: Why should I lead, and is it all worth it?

The short answer is YES!

While I don’t love every single day of my job, I do love leading the Center for Public Integrity because I’m growing in ways I haven’t imagined before. Every day, I’m being challenged to be creative and innovative in my drive to diversify the field of journalism. Every day, my empathy and my humanity grow as my team of investigative journalists of color fight for their place in journalism. If you want transformative change, this is not the time to be a bystander. Just ask yourself: If not you then who?

Here is some advice for winning in what feels like a no-win situation.

  1. Prioritize learning. Like another Star Trek mantra, leaders of color have to boldly go where no one has gone before. To be bold, you must prioritize learning from failure because innovation often lives between a rock and a hard place. You can’t change the system overnight. You just have to be patient and be extremely comfortable with falling and getting back up. You have to embrace disagreements and discords. Each fall and each challenge will become a datapoint and help you get back up faster and faster. Soon, you will have accumulated a wealth of experience to meet the challenges of tomorrow while others are still wallowing in their failure.
  2. Channel your ancestors. As a person of color and an immigrant, my ancestors have literally seen it all and experienced it all. They survived the atrocities of World War II. They endured famine, communism, and colonialism. They made their way to the U.S. and faced discrimination and inequality of all sorts. They refused to be broken. Their tenacity to thrive and their resilience runs through our veins. Just like Superman goes to the Fortress of Solitude to connect and learn about his heritage and purpose, your ancestors/elders’ memories and lived experiences can serve as your fortress of solitude. (Don’t hate me for mixing metaphors). When is the last time you have channeled your ancestors/elders’ collective strength?
  3. It’s OK to be vulnerable. As leaders, we assume we need to project confidence and authority. I feel that style of leadership is dated. Vulnerability does not mean weakness or failure. We’ve been surviving a pandemic, and we need to treat each other as human beings and not as manager to staff or vice versa. Sharing our fears, doubts, and constraints to colleagues allows for empathy, grace, and forgiveness. What’s more, it gives permission to our colleagues to step up and help lead, which will ultimately become the strength of the organization.
  4. Exercise self-care and self-advocacy. This is often the hardest for leaders of color. Not only do we suffer from imposter syndrome, but we also carry the belief that taking care of yourself and asking for support is a luxury only people with privilege can afford. Just remind yourself there is a reason why airlines always recommend you put your own oxygen mask on first before helping someone else. You must invest in your well-being before you can help others. Make a point to take daily breaks and take all of your vacation. If you can’t invest in yourself, why should anyone invest in you?

Paul Cheung
CEO, Center for Public Integrity

This is a guest column, solicited by P. Kim Bui and Emma Carew Grovum and edited by Kim. We want to make sure to include voices from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences. If you’re interested in guest writing, or have someone you’d love to hear from, let us know here.


  • Paul Cheung

    Paul Cheung leads The Center for Public Integrity as CEO to counter the effects of inequality by using investigative reporting to hold powerful interests accountable and equipping the public with knowledge to drive change. Previously, he managed a multi-million dollar investment portfolio at the Knight Foundation to scale the use of artificial intelligence, improve business sustainability solutions, and combat misinformation. Cheung has 20 years of experience in leading digital transformation and led cross-functional teams of journalists, technologists, data scientists, and designers at media outlets including NBC News Digital, The Associated Press, The Miami Herald, and The Wall Street Journal.


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