Leading with love: the key to an inclusive culture

Effective leadership is vital to growing an inclusive culture within the Further Education (FE) sector. Mark Wright, Director of Development and Evidence at the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), shares his insights on how leading with love is the key to inclusion.

Growing up in the northern soul scene in the seventies, I witnessed first-hand how a small sub-culture of inclusion can have the power to shift mainstream society. It led to something near-miraculous: changing how people related to each other.

Mark Wright

These early life lessons have helped to shape my work approach in co-creating a culture that celebrates diversity and encourages inclusion. It’s a privilege to be a member of the Senior Management Team at the ETF and introduce this approach as part of our strategy. Whilst diversity might have been underplayed for a long time or seen as a ‘nice to have’ within FE, it's absolutely essential for all sectors. As my colleague Jeff Greenidge, the ETF’s Director of Diversity, can attest to, diversity brings huge value to any organisation:

“Today's world is really quite complex. Organisations are increasingly recognising that the greatest insights come from teams who have a wide range of diverse viewpoints and perspectives. The more complex the decision-making and the more competitive the market, the greater the value is of these diverse inputs.

“That kind of diversity can take several forms. We tend to focus a lot on race and ethnicity, but don't forget what the diversity of gender, age and educational experience can also bring to the table.”

The importance of inclusion

It’s vital to feel nurtured and empowered at work, to recognise who we are and recognise our common humanity as we strive for that common purpose of improving the lives of our learners. This was poignantly highlighted in last year’s inTuition’s autumn issue, where Anshi Singh, Course Director of Computing at Basingstoke College of Technology, said:

“I cannot give my best to my work, unless I feel I belong and stand an equal chance to grow.”

As Anshi points out, it is essential as employees to feel like we can show our authentic selves at work and have genuine growth opportunities. I’ve given a lot of thought on how to embed this kind of inclusive culture within the ETF. There is a huge appetite for change, but how do we change hearts and minds?

Leadership, self-leadership and thought-leadership

I believe in focusing on the evidence of what actually works: changing mindsets at the deepest level. And that starts with leadership, self-leadership, and thought-leadership. We need leaders who aren’t afraid of doing the right thing and who challenge the status quo by giving voice to the unspoken curriculum. I’ve noticed more principals are taking ownership of the problem, taking ownership of their strategy and solutions, and this is exactly the kind of fearless leadership we need to support and encourage within the sector.

Respect for our diverse nature is simply the basic foundation for healthy relating, effective development and harmonious living. We need people to harness the power that comes from self-leadership: everyone is a leader, everyone is leading their own lives and has the potential to lead others too by acting as fearless mirrors of others’ behaviour, not through condemnation or judgment but in a healthy way. By cultivating self-leadership skills, we can dramatically widen the pool of people who see themselves as responsible leaders, and increase the diversity within our organisations – it’s the shared culture of responsibility that does the heavy lifting of change. Senior leaders can reflect where the organisation is on the journey to making the most of diversity, but it’s all based on the total sum of more effective, fully adult, daily interactions between everyone within the organisations, especially the learners.

Moving beyond diversity

But we mustn’t stop there. FE’s leaders can help people move beyond diversity. There will always need to be a celebration of diversity, but diversity is a wobbly staging post on the way to inclusion that can too easily trip into division. It can become a battleground that separates rather than unites. Everyone has “different gifts to bring to the party”, and if leaders can create a culture that enables a receptivity to all of these, that's when our sector will truly flourish and can be a shining example for our learners, as well as society more broadly.

Through the injustice of the past, people can forget how far we've come, so now is a time to recognise the gains as well as the potential for a brighter future. We must act to realise the future potential right here, right now, or the deep default of the past can too easily unwittingly drag us all backwards. For me, this is therefore absolutely the right time for the FE sector to actively nudge our staff and learners from diversity to inclusion.

FE Leadership Institutes

A useful tool for creating an inclusive culture is the power of coaching and mentorship to challenge the misperceptions that prevent the benefits of diversity and reinforce unconscious bias. At the ETF, our programmes are often underpinned by coaching and mentoring because the evidence is clear: it is such an effective form of Continuing Professional Development (CPD). It’s about self-development and thought-leadership and nurturing our future leaders to see what leading with love actually means: leading holistically and creating a culture in which all can grow, share and thrive.

The ETF is also in the very early stages of facilitating the development of an FE Leadership Institutes. Shaped for the sector by the sector, the Institute will essentially be a greenhouse to grow leaders from across the spectrum and will absolutely be encouraging people who are currently underrepresented to join. But we need to be careful about the language we use within all of our programmes. It will have an inclusive culture from the start to ensure that language is holistic, the invitations are open and we step beyond ‘diversity’ where this has retreated into stagnant silos.

Leading people to change

The goal has and will always be the same. In the not-too-distant future, I hope we can let go of the early stabilisers, like Black History Month, because this kind of celebration of diversity has become effectively mainstreamed. We need to continue to move forward, but we can only go as fast as the people who can shed their deepest fears and ignorant bias about the supposed ‘threat’ posed by others perceived to be different to themselves. You can’t force change on people, but you can lead them to change. We certainly do at the ETF, and whilst it will always be a learning curve, we are creating an inclusive culture that others will hopefully want to emulate for themselves.