Yesterday, Gareth Southgate, England Manager was awarded the inaugural Sky/Kick it Out Equality and Inclusion Award.
I am not the biggest football fan (which is not admitted to lightly being resident in Liverpool!), but I did watch the Euro 2020 finals match which saw England play against Italy.
Along with much of the country, I felt a huge sense of excitement as England’s prospect of winning the game was seemingly within arms reach.
These emotions were contrasted sharply with the mounting sense of dread as, one by one, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, three young black players, took and missed a series of penalty shootouts.
I, like so many others, immediately predicted the abhorrent abuse that would follow the result as I cupped my head, kneeling on the floor at the reality of the sides loss in that moment. I also knew the impact this would have on their manager who put all faith, and so much responsibility on their broad, young shoulders.
Discrimination in many forms has been in the news regularly this year, we have all seen examples of significant failures in health systems, criminal justice, and sport hitting the headlines constantly with devastating effects on peoples lives.
It feels like the impossible task of moving mountains, to push forward for change, against what can seem like an overwhelming weight of underlying social and historic issues, that recur again and again in the daily lives of people based on how they look or identify.
These regular news stories act to both motivate us to provoke change, and equally lead me to question whether things will be any better when my two sons are grown up...
That’s where courage comes in
Courage is about acknowledging our personal weaknesses and involves sharing power, standing up for our values, and being proactively accountable.
Having the courage to stand up for what you believe in, even in the midst of relentless set backs, criticism, backlashes, and scrutiny is what all leaders should aspire to.
This involves speaking up on a regular basis, rather than ‘one then done’ to support our staff, communities, and businesses to grow, and become more resilient in tackling the structures that enable relentless exclusionary practices to take place.
"We want everybody that joins our team to feel comfortable being part of it and in order to get the best out of people, I think they have to feel that they belong, they fit with what you're doing.
"And it's for us to create an environment where that's possible. So hopefully that can be replicated more and more across society. I think we're making massive advances in a short space of time.
"It's been too long for a lot of the changes that are happening now, but there is momentum and I think over the coming years, young people just aren't going to accept what's been acceptable in the past and we are going to be a more diverse country."
Whether you agree with Southgate’s approach/choices, or not, it is clear that he has been courageous in calling out racism, and placing accountability firmly on organisations.
The buck stops with C-suite, Boards, Executive Leadership Teams and Trustees, and this is driving a step change in adequately resourced, measurable, evidence-based initiatives for change that filter across whole organisations.
Although many may feel that this level/placement of accountability is just plain common sense, in reality, there is still sizable resistance in some organisations, which is causing ongoing harm to people’s lives, and slowing the pace of change.
In my opinion, the thing that is lacking in these instances is courageous leadership, the ability to empathise and speak out strongly and consistently in the face of fear, so that the next generation won’t feel excluded or marginalised, simply for being who they are.
After all, those at the top of organisations have plenty of role models, in fact, often people within their teams are the best example of courageous leaders, if they are brave enough to ask the right questions.
"I can take critique of my performance all day long, my penalty was not good enough, it should have gone in but I will never apologise for who I am and where I came from. I've felt no prouder moment than wearing those three lions on my chest and seeing my family cheer me on in a crowd of tens of thousands.” (Marcus Rashford)