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Pale Male and Stale

Pale Male and Stale or – what you can do to create change

I asked some trusted friends and colleagues what they thought my opening blogs should about when I launched this website. General consensus was “talk about things you know about and have an interesting take on – strategy, change and being an old white man within leadership positions”.

So here is my personal take on being an old white leader ….. the responsibilities we hold and what we can still do to help create the change we want to see. It’s stuff I wish I had thought about earlier as plenty who know will doubtless raise an eyebrow reading this.

I was first accused of being pale, male and stale in my mid-40’s. I didn’t feel particularly stale – the rest was indisputable. I was surrounded by a very similar peer group – perhaps unsurprisingly. Most of the drug treatment system was designed around those using opiates (mostly white men). The sector itself being newly invested in, meant that most organisations established themselves and their leadership teams at roughly the same times. The sector was well resourced (then) and the opportunities for growth and change were seemingly limitless. So people stayed and built organisations around and beneath them.

Competitive tendering of contracts bred cultures of machismo – where beating other people became a goal in itself.

Meanwhile all around us society changes – constantly, unpredictably and with an unstoppable force.

In the last few years of working independently most of the leaders I have worked with have been women and men and women from global majority communities. But the job is not yet done and we live in times where the #metoo and #blacklivesmatter movements are necessary forces for change and where trans rights are treated as political entertainment.

Most men in leadership positions probably can’t afford (financially or emotionally) to just step aside straight away. And in many ways – if you’re still relevant, contributing and making a difference why should you..? But men are largely the problem and therefore must be part of the solution.

Here’s what I think older white leaders can and should be doing:

  • #acceptyourprivilege – obviously and explicitly. Your race and gender has given you a head start. You need to do more than just acknowledge it – talk about it, create the conditions for change, be explicit about what you’re doing, invite and accept challenge and watch others take lead roles where they are clearly more expert.
  • Be a real ally – know when to step back and create the space for better people to step forward, invest in the work proposed and always be prepared to walk alongside people. When you’re invited. Learn when to keep quiet. Silence is also communication. You’re already a leader. Consider how much airtime you already consume.
  • Language changes quickly – model openness, learning and change through every interaction. Your historical perspective gives a grounding, your position gives you a platform and your authority makes it incumbent upon you to know when to shut up and listen. The language of disability rights, gender, sexuality, race etc have changed dramatically over the years – and will change again. Just look at the ‘war on woke’ and ‘culture wars’ being peddled by those in privileged positions punching down. Don’t be one of those people.
  • Be generous- your privileged position  gives your platform to help movements of change and justice – on their terms. My long-term colleague Viv Ahmun has always said to me “all the time they hold power we have to work with white people. But we want to work with the right white ones”. Be one of those.
  • Be authentic – people can see right through pretence. It infuriates people to utter things like ‘I’m just scared to say the wrong things these days’. Saying nothing is always the wrong thing. “I just don’t see colour” is even more annoying. If you have created the conditions for change and accept challenge openly, you’ll soon be told when your language is offensive, clumsy or outdated.
  • Set the tone – genuinely – if you are a leader you are the ambassador for your organisation and a beacon for its’ values. Model the behaviours you talk about in your annual reports. Do this within the spirit of compassion and learning.
  • Wherever you are working and whatever your primary focus is also remember that every change movement will be stronger where it is intersectional. Class oppression for instance permeates every sphere of social policy – just look at the income backgrounds of those in our prisons, homelessness and mental health services. So always look out to build alliances based on trust, humanity and hope.

And as my wife always said – just remember Mike that every equalities fight started with a white man saying no.

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