I did not feel safe - safe to be my true self or safe to speak up. It was gut wrenching.
What's required of leaders now? For me the answer is simple - be more inclusive. A more human and inclusive approach to leadership is no longer a nice to have - it has become a business imperative. The dramatic changes in the way we work have shifted our expectations of the workplace; we want to work in a place where we can thrive and do our best even when faced with challenging circumstances; we want to work in a place where people understand us and make us feel valued; we want to work in a place where we feel safe - safe to contribute without being ridiculed and safe to challenge without being shouted down. All roads lead back to inclusion - without it we can't progress and thrive. It goes without saying that leaders drive inclusion - their actions and behaviours will dictate how included (or not) people feel.
I would like to share a personal story to highlight how critical inclusion is, especially in such uncertain times as these. Back in 1997 I was offered a scholarship from the Royal Air Force which meant I would be sponsored through University with a guaranteed job at the end of it. As an 18 year old who dreamed of becoming a pilot and flying fast jets, I was thrilled. It was also a time when I was painfully aware of my sexuality - I knew I was gay but didn't dare to come out; the 90s weren't quite so liberal and it was still very much a taboo topic. So I kept it to myself.
Throughout my three years at University I would spend every weekend at an air force base to start my training to become a pilot. I very quickly learned that being gay in this environment was a big no - there was a huge amount of homophobic banter - jokes and pranks that delivered a clear message - being gay in the RAF (at that time) was not okay. So I continued to keep my sexuality to myself. I lived in fear that I would be exposed, that my true identity would be found out and that I would be ridiculed and rejected for being different. I remember to this day how it felt - I was paralysed with chronic fear every time I had to go near an air force base or spend time with my RAF colleagues, to the point where I would feel physically ill. Over the years this had a huge impact on my mental and physical wellbeing, but it also had an impact on my pilot training - I wasn't going so well. I was so consumed with fear, I couldn't focus and perform to the level expected. To make matters worse, there wasn't a safe space - the leaders at the time encouraged an alpha male culture that wasn't accepting of difference and that made it okay to ridicule people on the grounds of their sexuality. I did not feel safe - safe to be my true self or safe to speak up. It was gut wrenching. It reached the stage where I had to make a very difficult decision and give up on my dream of becoming a pilot - I knew I could not continue in an environment where I couldn't be myself, so I decided to leave the RAF and pursue a career in law. It was one of the hardest decisions I have had to make, but at the time I couldn't see an alternative.
How does this all connect to being a leader in 2021? I appreciate that the 1990s was a different time (with no pandemic!) and attitudes have moved significantly in the last two decades, but I hope my story highlights how feeling excluded can be so damaging. There are many reasons why people may feel excluded - sexuality is just one example - but it is the leader's responsibility to ensure everyone in their team is feeling included, so they can bring their best selves to work which in turn will allow them to thrive. It is important to recognise and accept that the 'new normal' with some people in the office and others working from home will present new challenges to inclusion - it is now easier than ever to pick and chose who we speak to, who we engage with (and of course who we don't speak to / engage with). These uncertain times mean that inclusion remains vital - leaders have to play their part and accept responsibility for this.
To return to my opening statement - now is the time for leaders to focus on inclusion with more passion and vigour than ever before. So reach out to your team, ask them how they are feeling, ask them if they feel included, ask them what you can do more / less of. Check in and be a connected leader, demonstrate that you are leader who cares about inclusion - I can assure you that putting inclusion at the top of your to-do list is a guaranteed return on investment, and if you can help someone to move away from the paralysis of exclusion, know that you will have done something very special.