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Blunkett: Leaders must be comfortable with difference and challenge


At a RES Forum Symposium David Blunkett explored the importance of inclusive leadership and the danger of 'tolerating'

Cultivating leaders comfortable with challenge is vital to diversity and inclusion, according to former home secretary and education and employment secretary David Blunkett.

Speaking at global mobility association The RES Forum’s 2016 Symposium, Blunkett said leaders both skilled in what they do and confident enough to lead, but also happy to listen to others, are very rare.

“It is a massive challenge,” he said. “We want great leaders on the one hand – people who can motivate and inspire – and on the other hand we want listening, thinking people who are open to persuasion and will listen to other people’s ideas and to customers. And it’s very difficult to get both.”

Blunkett said the best political leaders he’d experienced during his career were those who valued diversity of thought – to the extent they’d let all politicians they led make broadcast appearances.

The danger, he warned, was leaders sitting in a “bubble” of people like them and resistant to people and ideas different to their own. When this happens others feel they can’t challenge them without compromising their own advancement, Blunkett said, reporting that while Tony Blair had an open leadership style, Gordon Brown did not: “Gordon was not amenable; it was damned hard work.”

Blunkett, who has been blind since birth, also spoke on the power of genuinely trying to imagine yourself in another’s shoes. He warned of well-meaning but ill thought-through gestures.

“The most important thing of all in terms of D&I is that people start to think about how they themselves would want to be treated in another person’s situation… it’s envisaging yourself in that situation – what would make things easier, what would make things excruciatingly embarrassing – and trying not to get too screwed up about it,” he said.

“It’s people being sensitive without being oversensitive,” he added, reporting instances where people have been so keen to help they’ve “whizzed [Blunkett] across the road” without actually asking if he wanted to cross.

Blunkett added the importance of the more subtle differences between people, and warned of the danger of confusing inclusivity with tolerance. “D&I isn’t just about the obvious things; it’s about the background of people, where they live, the geography, the assumptions people make about others,” he said, citing Britain’s “issue” with the North and the Midlands and the “resentment” this causes.

He relayed an important lesson taught to him by his professor while at university, who advised that “people use the word tolerant when they don’t mean it".

“We shouldn’t be the least bit tolerant of difference because we shouldn’t have to tolerate it,” said Blunkett. “If you tolerate something it’s because you find it awkward or difficult or embarrassing”.

Blunkett, who described attending a “useless” school for the blind as a child and leaving with no qualifications but working his way up from there, pointed out the value of people from minority groups in terms of their resilience. “People talk a lot of [rubbish] about resilience,” he said, adding: “Real resilience is being a single parent living in a high-rise flat with four children and doing two jobs to keep things going…”