Leading for fairness in Black History Month

Published: Posted on

Nurse measuring the blood pressure of a patient

By Steve Gulati
Associate Professor, Director of Healthcare Leadership, Health Services Management Centre, University of Birmingham

October is Black History Month. It’s also the month assertions have been made at the Conservative Party Conference that the UK is the ‘best country in the world in which to be black’.

This provided a sharp contrast to the findings of a major report, also published in October, into the actual lived experience of young people of colour in British workplaces, with widespread reports of feeling the need to change one’s name, change one’s behaviour and generally needing to ‘code switch’ to be appointed to a job, to fit in or to progress. The difference in tone and in narrative is stark.

The issue of code-switching is particularly pertinent and painful. Speak to almost any person of colour and they can tell you a story of when they have ‘moderated’ their behaviour or even appearance, chosen to either say something or to stay silent, to be free in expression or guarded, depending on the situation. We are experts at reading the room and knowing what is acceptable or not, in different environments – this is very different to one of the tenets of privilege and power, which is to feel free to say what one pleases and behave without any filter. There is an exercise that we often use in leadership development and in equality, diversity and inclusion sessions where we ask people to share the story or origin of their name. Without fail, this raises stories of deep meaning and resonance, and very often high emotion – again, almost always, especially from people of colour. If young people of colour today feel the need to moderate, even re-invent themselves to ‘fit in’ and avoid prejudice, then it really is difficult to argue that the UK is the best place in the world to be black.

Black History Month itself can be considered a contested event, but in many ways it is as important as those in power will allow it to be, and as important as those struggling for voice can make it. My own experience, in academia and in the NHS, is that senior leaders are much more comfortable when the debate is dispassionate, or sanitised through metrics; facing up to very real injustices in real time, right now, is often just too discomforting. However, it is in just those moments, sometimes fleeting, other times after months or even years of hard work, when it is difficult, when one needs humanity and courage, when one needs more than anything else to be human and not ‘corporate’ – that marks the potential turning point, an opportunity to make a real difference. That is why much of the leadership development education that we deliver at HSMC, both accredited (the MSc in Healthcare Leadership funded by NHS Leadership Academy, for example) and bespoke non-accredited (such as the Clinical Leaders Development Programme) focus on the critical importance of reflexivity, relational skills and on models such as servant leadership.

Progress doesn’t happen just in board meetings and at policy briefings. It happens at those challenging, emotional, even painful relational moments when leaders are sitting across the table from those who have suffered injustice. That is when leaders can make a real difference to the lives of those whom they lead, whether minoritised or not – and it is those moments that people tend to remember.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *