Pandemic is ‘no excuse to ignore bias in leadership’

He seemed defiant in the face of this treat­ment, saying he didn’t “give a damn” about the death threats he has re­ceived and that he was “proud of being black, proud of being negro.” (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images).
He seemed defiant in the face of this treat­ment, saying he didn’t “give a damn” about the death threats he has re­ceived and that he was “proud of being black, proud of being negro.” (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images).


By Professor Binna Kandola
Senior partner and Cofounder,
Pearn Kandola

DURING one of his reg­ular press conferences, the World Health Or­ganisation’s director-general spoke out about the racist abuse and threats that he has re­cently received.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he had endured “personal attacks” and “racist comments” for three months, with the abuse including “giving me names, black or negro”.

He seemed defiant in the face of this treat­ment, saying he didn’t “give a damn” about the death threats he has re­ceived and that he was “proud of being black, proud of being negro.”

He clearly felt strong­ly about the issue, but it seemed to me as though he was trying to contain the real depth of his emotions. I sus­pect there is a great deal more that, in another time or place, he would like to have said.

Despite his restraint though, his comments drew criticism from some quarters, with claims that he was play­ing the ‘race card’ in or­der to deflect criticism of his organisation’s performance during this ongoing crisis.

Leaders of major public organisations will always be under scrutiny, especially dur­ing challenging times. I am sure that many ac­tually come to expect a critical gaze on their de­cisions, leadership style and achievements.

However, it is also the case that some individ­uals will receive more criticism than others, purely because of the colour of their skin or their nationality.

This kind of bias needs to be urgently ad­dressed. You might not think this is the time to prioritise diversity, but I would argue that it is critical now. We need talented leaders to see us through this crisis, and that talent is being stifled. If we are to emerge stronger, we must understand the stereo­types that are holding back minority leaders and act to end them.

We can see these ste­reotypes in action all around. Here in the UK, a disproportionate number of senior lead­ers are white men, and of the various minority groups who have made it into senior roles, black people are easily the worst represented. Much of this is due to the stereotyping – both implicit and explicit – of black people; in par­ticular, the stereotypical view that black people lack many of the key in­tellectual capabilities required to be success­ful leaders.

Today, very few peo­ple openly endorse such views. Indeed, some will be outraged that I am even broaching this subject. The research, however, paints a very different picture of the current state of diversity in society. For example, one study, conducted by Professor Geoff Beat­tie, found that when viewing CVs, HR man­agers tended to look longer at negative infor­mation on minority candidates’s applications than on those of white candidates. It is as if they were looking for reasons to reject them.

This kind of discrimi­nation isn’t linked sole­ly to the recruitment – or indeed promotion – process, though. Where an ethnic minority leader achieves success in their role, they are more likely to have those achievements attributed to factors other than their abilities, such as luck or having a great team. They are also more likely to be criticised for poor performances than their majority counterparts. And, of course, it isn’t just the case that these things happen in isolation – they can all be going on at different times.

It’s true that open abuse of the kind that Dr Ghebreyesus has ex­perienced is less likely to occur in organisations, although even that is more common than we might think. Instead, it is the more subtle forms of racism that are likely to impede the progress of minorities to the realms of leadership.

There is no ‘magic bullet’ that can be used to solve this problem. Issues of race are too of­ten ignored by organi­sations, either because they are seen as too dif­ficult or because too few people see them as significant. Complex as this discussion is – and despite the “more pressing” challenges that Covid-19 may ap­pear to pose – we must never underestimate the importance of keep­ing race and leadership on the agenda.

Once this crisis is be­hind us, there is a range of actions that organisa­tions must take. We must be more willing to listen to the experiences of ethnic minority col­leagues and establish clear protocols for the selection of leaders.

Likewise, it is critical that when people do speak up about issues of racism, they are not automatically dismissed as ‘playing the race card’, just as Dr Ghe­breyesus has been by some of his critics.

Most important, we must understand the stereotypes that cause us to view minority leaders differently. Their performance – success and failures alike – must always be held to the same stand­ard as their white col­leagues. Only then will we get the best from our leaders and everyone will benefit. Put simply, the race card must nev­er be played.

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