Institutionally Racist? That Don’t Impress Me Much
The time has come for exemplary Inclusive leaders to rise. It is a time for meaningful, intentional and sustained action, not empty words.
As we commemorate the third anniversary of George Floyd’s tragic death, a recent development is causing ripples throughout the United Kingdom. In what has been described as a ground breaking statement on 25 May 2023, Sir Ian Livingstone, the outgoing Chief Constable of Police Scotland—the country’s second largest force—declared that the organisation is deeply entrenched in institutional racism, misogyny, sexism, and discrimination.
These powerful words, emanating from a leader who has held the reins since August 2018 (and even served as the Deputy Chief Constable Designate prior to that), have undeniably captured widespread attention, dominating the headlines. However, as I listened to the news coverage, I couldn’t shake a profound sense of unease.
While acknowledging the importance of recognising these issues as a crucial step towards initiating change, I find myself questioning the efficacy of public self/service-flagellation set against the context of a failure to issue any kind of genuine apology for what is fundamentally a failure in good leadership; his leadership. I am puzzled about whether this is a genuine omission or a failure to understand his own accountability for the very issues he raises.
Leadership expert John C. Maxwell once remarked that to comprehend an organisation’s culture, leaders need only gaze into a mirror. And I wholeheartedly agree. When it comes to issues around Inclusion, Culture and Equity, I believe it is incumbent upon boards and senior leaders to stand united, metaphorically, in front of that mirror, engaging in a thorough examination of their own roles, individually and collectively in shaping and perpetuating whatever organisational culture(s) exists—be they positive or negative.
An organisation does not simply become “institutionally racist, sexist, or misogynist” overnight. These cultures, like any other, have been nurtured by the consistent and sustained actions and inactions of its leaders.
An organisation does not simply become “institutionally racist, sexist, or misogynist” overnight. These cultures, like any other, have been nurtured by the consistent and sustained actions and inactions of its leaders. They have been meticulously cultivated through consistent cover-ups, failures to address the obvious, a lack of responses to the voices that dared to speak up, and a dearth of challenges and actions regarding deeply rooted historical issues. They have been fed by leaders who have ‘walked on by’ behaviours and attitudes that have been merely symptoms of a much deeper malaise.
Leaders who have allowed those cultures to flourish grow and have failed to change or challenge policies, practices and procedures that impacted unfairly on certain individuals even when drawn to their attention. It is a less of an unpredicted mishap and more of sustained wilful inaction.
It does not happen by default, hence Sir Ian declaring this “state of the nation” after nearly seven years at the helm, as he is about to leave appears, at best, disingenuous and, at worst, lacking in integrity. I am tempted to echo the words of Shania Twain “that don’t impress me much” or simply ask “where have you been”?
Renowned HR magazine SHRM emphasises that an organisation’s culture defines the proper way to behave within its walls. Leaders establish these shared beliefs and values, which are then communicated and reinforced through various means, ultimately shaping employee perceptions, behaviors, and understanding. As Edgar Schein asserts, the most important task of leaders is to shape and manage culture. Ignorance is no excuse and no one can claim ignorance particularly after the death of George Floyd.
In our work with leaders across public sector organisations, I am consistently astonished by the gap that seems to exist in organisations between leadership, culture, and inclusion. Good leadership is by default inclusive. Good leadership is about creating, facilitating and leading positive working cultures where all belong and are treated fairly. Good leadership is value driven and the basic human values of kindness, compassion, tolerance, respect and fairness naturally mitigate against the behaviours and attitudes that drive misogyny and discrimination. Bad cultures live when good leadership dies.
Regrettably, this admission—or what in my view should be a confession by Sir Ian—will not, yield positive results. It will further deepen wounds of division within the organisation, leaving a tangled mess of divided loyalties for the leaders he leaves behind to clean up.
The label ‘institutionally racist’ itself has not proven to be a catalyst for change; instead, it too often becomes an excuse for defensiveness and concerted efforts to prevent any corroborating evidence from emerging that will further reinforce this message. Internally, many will dismiss it, while others will rail against it. The organisation will enter a mode of survival and defensiveness, hindering the environment needed for true transformation and sustainable change. Police Scotland need not look far for an example.
I would have found it far more impressive if Sir Ian had personally apologised today for failing to create a culture of inclusion, equity, fairness, and justice within the organisation he led for the last seven years. This failure has come at a steep cost to members of the community, but it will also take its toll on his own officers and staff.
Undoubtedly, there are racist, sexist, and misogynist individuals within Police Scotland, but there are also thousands of dedicated individuals who risk their lives daily to protect their communities. Tomorrow, while Sir Ian and his team engage in more interviews and self-reflection at headquarters, these individuals will face mistrustful and betrayed communities and battle lines will be drawn. History has not shown this to be a helpful approach on either side.
Inclusive leadership demands integrity, honesty, and accountability. A leader cannot distance themselves from the culture(s) of the organisation they have led or continue to lead. The journey towards anti-racism is an arduous one, considering the starting point for many an organisation and there is still a lack of clarity about what the final destination looks like. Organisations reflect the societies they exist in and we have a long way to go before we are anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic or indeed non-discriminatory.
It is crucial that Police Scotland now focuses on fostering and developing culturally intelligent and inclusive leaders who comprehend their foremost role in creating a vision for a different future—one that they lead all their people toward. These leaders need to be change catalysts who understand the science and art of change leadership. They need to be visionaries who have a clear vision of the world they are trying to create and the skills and capabilities to engage and lead their whole workforce on the journey of change. They have to be value driven and understand the importance of Intentional Inclusive leadership. At Above Difference we say, inclusion has to be about everyone or it will be about no one.
As John C. Maxwell eloquently states, “It all rises and falls with leadership.” The time has come for exemplary Inclusive leaders to rise. It is a time for meaningful, intentional and sustained action, not empty words.
#InclusiveLeadership #OrganisationalCulture #Accountability #DrivingChange