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Why leaders shouldn’t be afraid to be vulnerable

05 March 2024

Mark Thurston, former CEO of HS2, explains that being open and honest is the key to being an authentic ally.

Why leaders shouldn’t be afraid to be vulnerable
If you’re going to be an ally, you’ve got to be prepared to understand different perspectives.

When I was becoming an ally, I had a penny-dropped moment when I had to ask myself: do I really understand these subjects?

For example, do I really understand white privilege? Do I understand what it’s like to be a person of colour?

Gaining new perspectives

I read Renni Eddo-Lodge's Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (2018) and it was eye-opening.

Eddo-Lodge brings to life her own lived experiences, as well as those of Black and Asian people, particularly women. She talks about intersectionality, too.

It’s a very honest and balanced reflection on why she no longer talks to white people about race.

And as a middle-aged white man, reading that book was a tipping point for me.

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I grew up in south London. It’s pretty diverse.

I went to school with lots of people of colour, played football with them, we grew up side-by-side.

But it wasn’t until I read Eddo-Lodge's book that I thought, ‘Wow, okay, interesting - maybe I wasn’t being sensitive enough to their experience and their perspective of white privilege.’

Especially when Eddo-Lodge delves into first-hand experiences of racism, prejudice and bias.

So, for me the penny dropped when I came to understand the subject from the perspective of someone else, because it really brought these experiences to life for me.

Understanding is key to being an ally

If you’re going to be an ally, you’ve got to be prepared to, at the very least, understand the perspective of the group of people you’re choosing to be an ally of.

I can’t ever replace my upbringing or my lived experience.

So for me, it’s been key to spend time with the people that I’m an ally of, listen to their experiences and read books like Eddo-Lodge's.

Then you can start to get that perspective.

I think that’s quite powerful. It makes it much easier to be an ally because you’re now profoundly invested.

It goes beyond knowing that it’s the right thing to do, which it is, because now you’re emotionally invested, as well as intellectually.

Letting our guards down

As CEO, and as a leader in general, you need to find a way to ‘disarm’ people if you want to be an ally.

That’s because it’s likely they’ll want to be on their ‘best behaviour’ around you, and perhaps hesitate to share personal stories, positive or negative.

Leave your grade and role at the door when you come into these conversations. Present yourself as a colleague thinking about how you can best support them.

It’s all part of being open and vulnerable.

Willingness to be vulnerable

At HS2, I was also executive sponsor of the REACH network, which stands for race, ethnicity and cultural heritage.

When I first met them, I was quite openly vulnerable about the fact that I hadn’t been a network sponsor before.

I said: ‘Look, I need your help. I don’t know what it feels like. Help me understand this.’

I told them that as a middle-aged, white man, frankly, it was daunting for me.

I didn’t know where the discussion would go. Some of it might be uncomfortable.

I said: 'If I say something that isn’t quite right or it seems like I’m not fully invested, I want you to challenge me.

‘Because I’m only going to be an effective executive sponsor if you help me become the sponsor you want me to be.’

Being vulnerable helped them see that I was being authentic about this, and it was amazing how they opened up to me.

It really helped me to see the world through their lens, as it were.

Make it a priority

You don’t just sign on to these conversations or sponsor these networks because it’s the thing to be seen doing or because you want to bring it up at your professional appraisal.

You've got to get invested, and truly engage in the conversations and the work.

And it needs to be a priority.

The truth is, this so-called ‘side-of-desk' work, like employee networks or being an executive sponsor – it's easy to deprioritise it.

So if you want to be an ally, you must see it as an important part of your role. Once you commit, find a way of making it a habit.

However much time you can offer, be it one hour a month, half a day a month, commit to that and do it properly.

And when you’re there, be present. People will notice if you’re only going through the motions.

Become emotionally invested

The key point about authenticity, for me, is being emotionally invested.

Emotional investment looks different for everybody.

I’m an extrovert. I’m comfortable expressing myself and my emotions. Some people find that very difficult, and they’ll find other ways of connecting.

I’m happy to talk in a big group, while others may choose to talk to one or two people and support them more privately.

There’s no right or wrong way of being an ally, but I would encourage those who want to be one to be prepared to be vulnerable and listen to those they want to be an ally of.

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  • Mark Thurston, former chief executive officer at HS2 Ltd