Awareness and leadership

Business conversations, whether about bias in ML led AI or pay or investment biases against women and minorities, often end up discussing “solutions”.

Unconscious bias training for boards and execs, “confidence bootcamps” and “coaching” for women, cultural sensitivity workshops for any one at all are some of the packaged answers on offer. There is a growing cottage industry nay large scale industry operating globally proffering these quick fixes to build and enhance awareness.

And yet real change is slow to come.

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A few weeks ago, I was talking with a senior European business leader about change and how to drive it. The leadership challenges in creating inclusive workplaces came up.

As we were wrapping up I made a remark that stopped him. He looked at me and asked me to repeat it.

So I did: “You cannot wake a person who is only pretending to be asleep.

There, he said, in a nutshell was the core of the all change management programmes. Leaders often go on pretending to be asleep, blissfully unaware of the bazillion headlines around us about bias and prejudice, political repression, as well as poor behaviours including in their own organisations. If you pretend you did not see it or know it, you don’t have to fix it. Simple.

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The CEO of Volkswagen recently said he did not know about China’s repression of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, even though his company has a factory in the province.

CEOs and creative directors of luxury companies continue to profess ignorance of historically problematic and racially charged symbols and those symbols keep showing up in Gucci sweaters, Prada’s “Little Sambo” keychains, Burberry’s “noose” hoodies, Miu Miu clothing with “yellow star” patches.

Mark Zuckerberg, as we know from his testimony, knows nothing about the wrong goings-on in his company. And definitely nothing about how the platform was weaponised against the Rohingyas in Myanmar.

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Pretension of such ignorance sustains the status quo and preserves the existing privilege and profit-making structures.

It also enables the leaders to go on spending money on the “awareness” industry instead of taking firm steps to change things.

The theatre of change.

Rather than the harsh reality of change.

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If a leader cannot bring him/herself to admit to being aware of the very obvious visible to all around us, should they really be leading anything?