Last week the Service Chiefs in the UK wrote an open letter setting out their collective commitment to improve diversity and inclusion in the Armed Forces and Defence more widely. Also last week, the Deputy Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy sent out a stern message to those criticising the moves to gender-neutral terminology for ranks and rates in the RCN. This feels like an issue whose time has come.
I have long been committed to a leadership philosophy that is inclusive and have articulated my leadership approach before. I do not consider this to be about “political correctness” for its own sake nor to simply avoid causing offence. There are lots of valid reasons where one can act properly and cause offence; the mere avoidance of offending people is not what this is about. Leadership is about bringing out the best in those around you to achieve a common purpose. This, as well as a basic commitment to fairness, is why I am a Naval Servicewomen’s Network ally and am also proud to champion the case of other minority groups in the Service.
The quote is attributed to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.
The Royal Navy, like many of our institutions is predominately composed of white heterosexual men. I am not arguing here as to whether the diversity of composition is, in and of itself, important in its own right; although Ministry of Defence and Royal Navy policies make it plain that, as far as they are concerned, it is. For what it’s worth, and for the record, that accords with my own opinion but that really is an aside for my argument. The fact is that we have workforce composed of different genders, sexualities, religions, races, etc; and everyone deserves to be led equitably.
What is clear is that to achieve our purpose; being a Global Navy for a Global Britain: modern, lethal (to our enemies) and relevant; we need to recruit, develop and retain the very best talent that is available to us. That talent must be forged into high performing teams by leaders at all levels that can get the very best out of all of their people, working in concert, to ensure that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Furthermore, it is foolish to consider that such talent, those reserves of potential, reside uniquely or even predominantly in white, heterosexual men. In a competitive market for skills we simply cannot afford to waste any opportunity to recruit, retain and maximise the talent in our Service. It is also morally (not to say legally) right to give everybody equality of opportunity to thrive and maximise their potential.
In an Armed Service which relies on volunteers to join and stay within the organisation to progress into leadership positions of their own, it is axiomatic that we have a duty to create an environment where everybody feels that they belong. Everybody must feel included; they must feel that it is their Royal Navy as much as everyone else’s. This is where seemingly small things matter. Language matters; behaviour matters; inclusion matters. Humans are social creatures and we have evolved to be acutely tuned to pick up on nuanced social signals. Not sure what I mean? Go into certain pubs and even looking at someone the “wrong way” can lead to violence. We work in the psychology of the ‘in group’ and the ‘out group’. You’re either part of the tribe or not.
For the team to perform at its very best, we need everyone to be considered and, most importantly, to consider themselves as part of the ‘in group’. If, like me, you’re an able-bodied, white, heterosexual man then there’s a good chance that you’ve never (or rarely) felt in the ‘out group’ at work. Perhaps you have been bullied or excluded for your accent, the colour of your hair, the fact that you wear glasses or whatever. If you were, you’ll know it is a deeply unpleasant experience that sapped your self-esteem and confidence and made you feel like an outsider in the group. But the chances are that it was short-lived, the circumstances of a particularly toxic localised culture or individuals. It was probably not systemic; not inherent to the system itself. But talking to your colleagues from minority groups in your organisation: women, those from ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, the neurodiverse, LGBTQ+ colleagues and so on will reveal a different story. And by ‘talking to’ I really mean listening to. Properly.
For me, the salutary lesson came one day in HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH. I was in a small meeting which included two women who worked in my Department. We briefly touched on the subject of Gender pay equality (something that was in the news that day). “We’ve got this gender equality thing cracked” I said gleefully, “the Armed Forces pay equally for the same rank or rate and seniority irrespective of gender. We should be really proud that we’re a gender-blind meritocracy!” Cue a slightly awkward silence. “What?” I enquired, “tell me.”
The two women glanced at each other with a look that very clearly said “are you going to tell him, or am I?”
Whilst not specifically about the pay issue, there followed an object lesson for me in male privilege. Now, this is an inflammatory term. Those being “accused” of having privilege frequently rail against the fact on the basis that it somehow impugns their effort, hard work and achievements or perhaps, even, belittles their own struggles against adversity. I understand this as I too have the same instinctual reaction to the term but what it really means is relative advantage. And there’s no doubt that, listening to my female colleagues, I have had a relative advantage over them in my career simply by being a man. This takes many forms and most are small things, virtually imperceptible, but they add up. Language is one of those things; not being invited to the pub when everyone else is going because “it’s probably not the sort of thing you’d enjoy” is another; people placing their hands on your hips as the move past you in the mess; and so on. A more modern example is perhaps not being added to the team WhatsApp group – or being added but finding that there is a shadow one with everyone but you where all the “banter” happens. All of these “micro aggressions” have an additive effect on people’s sense of belonging and confidence. And this is aside from the out and out bullying, sexual harassment, sexual assault, homophobia, transphobia and racism faced by members of our society. I would stress at this point that I do not believe that the prevalence of these things is greater in the Navy than it is in wider society and, in many respects, I think much less. Nonetheless we could, should and must be better. Often such things are unthinking and the individuals involved would be mortified if they believed that they were doing any such thing. An anecdotal example:
A very senior officer (VSO) was asked to attend a dinner at short (a few hours’) notice with a visiting Head of Navy from an important allied nation. The VSO needed a ‘plus one’ for the dinner and his wife lives in another part of the country. So he strode into the open plan office and asked a female officer (a senior officer with substantial frontline Command experience in her own right) whether she would like to accompany him to the dinner.
“I don’t know if you’re asking me on a date, Sir, or whether you’re suggesting that I should be the ‘duty skirt’; but either way Sir you can f*ck right off!” The VSO (rightly) apologised profusely and scuttled back to his office.
Now, less confident women might have just played along but nonetheless resented the fact that they were being used in a gender-specific way not expected of their male counter-parts. Others may have decided to make the most of the opportunity to build their professional relationship with their VSO outside of the office environment. But the point really is that there was an unthinking inherent sexism in the actions of the VSO, especially to have the conversation in public placing the female officer in an invidious position. And lest anyone think that I am taking the moral high ground here, I know that I have done similar and worse. Never meaning any harm but nonetheless I should have known better and I am determined to be better. People make mistakes, everyone accepts that, and when you do a genuine apology goes a long way.
And all of this matters because, aside from its inherent unfairness, it changes people’s views as to how they see the Service and how they progress within it. There is some objective evidence to suggest that women have to be brighter and more capable, on average, than their male counterparts to reach equivalent senior rank. Therefore, it is no surprise, wider cultural issues aside, that frustrated by a lack of career progression some women choose to leave earlier than their male counterparts. This, in part, at least helps to explain why nearly 3 decades after women first went to sea and were fully integrated into the Royal Navy, we have yet to have a woman promoted to Flag Rank. And it’s not that there hasn’t been time; some of our current Flag Officers joined up with women and the Army and RAF both have women at equivalent ranks.
In the face of such evidence, it is unconscionable not to try and level the playing field. No woman I have ever spoken to in the Royal Navy want special treatment or an unfair advantage based on their gender. Quite right. But where the playing field is demonstrably skewed against them, working to address the systemic issues that hamper them isn’t preferential treatment, it’s just fairness. If you were to play table football in a pub and one goal was a few centimetres lower than the other, you might consider placing a few beer mats under the lower legs to level up the playing field. Would you really consider this to be an unfair advantage or special treatment for the player who would otherwise be asked to shoot uphill?
Now, you may think that as a man I have no place making these arguments and that the women (or other minority groups) should speak up for themselves. You would be wrong. There is clear evidence that advocacy for minority groups by allies from the majority group is much more productive in driving change. Of course, not every woman sees such issues in the same way, any more than all men have a common view on anything, but there are clear themes in the lived experience of many women in our Service that we ought to address. They have invited me to be their ally in driving this change and I am proud to be so.
One typical reaction of some people (mostly men) when such issues are raised, however, is one of denial, ie “this is a non-issue, why are you bothering about it”. Of course, what they really mean is that it’s not an issue for them… that doesn’t mean that it isn’t an issue for others as we have discussed above. And given that they are asserting that it is a “non-issue” they do seem to get very irate about something they profess no one should care about it. The fact they are angered by something that they deem a “non-issue” suggests that, moreover, far from being ambivalent they are actually supportive of retaining the status quo – the unmerited dominance of people they consider to be like them. And don’t tell me it’s about “tradition”. Just because it’s been happening for a long time doesn’t make it desirable to continue. For hundreds of years’ sailors suffered from scurvy, something detrimental to our fighting effectiveness and the well-being of our people. We eradicated it for exactly these reasons once we realised what was going on and what could be done about it.
The other mistake people make is thinking that this is about simply avoiding offence or that humour no longer has any place; that no one is allowed to make a joke any more. I’ll come to that latter point in a moment but on the subject of avoiding offence: none of this is because I think people should intrinsically be protected simply from being offended. There are times when, frankly, we all need to be offended; most likely because we need to be told things about ourselves or what we choose believe that we don’t want to hear. I cannot control what offends you, but I can ensure that I treat you with respect and, if you’re in my gang, that a relationship of mutual trust exists between us; I can ensure that you know that you’re a valued and valuable member of my team. Once that’s in place, difficult conversations about issues that may cause offence are much easier to handle. This is good leadership, not simply political correctness.
On the subject of jokes. As well as being entertaining, humour and ‘banter’ can have a powerful cohesive effect if grounded in trust and mutual respect, but it must be inclusive. If there is any sense that an individual is being picked on, excluded, victimised, bullied or discriminated against it is corrosive and harmful to the team and the individual. There is a difference and, like conversations about matters likely to cause offence, it is about context. The trick is to treat others as you would wish to be treated and, if you think you may have got it wrong, check-in with that person as to whether you may have pushed it too far with them and apologise. Almost certainly, you will gain more respect and more grace by demonstrating that you are mindful and respectful of the other person’s feelings. You will also have learned to be a better leader.
At this point, someone will normally pipe up and assert that we are a fighting force and that we don’t have time to worry about how people feel. This is 100% nonsense. Leadership is all about how you make people feel. Do you inspire them to greater things that than even they thought they were capable of, individually and collectively? Do you give them confidence in you, the team and themselves? Are they inspired and uplifted? Do they want to give of their best? If not, you have no business leading anybody. The great military leaders understood this and were masters of it: Nelson, Slim, Montgomery, etc:
“The first duty of a leader is optimism. How does your subordinate feel after meeting with you? Does he [or she] feel uplifted? If not, you are not a leader.”
Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery
We should leave the business of disheartening and alienating our own people to the enemy. We should, under no circumstances, do their job for them! And this must apply equally to everyone in our organisation. Equality, by the way, does not mean similarity. What might work for me may not work for you. There is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequals. This is nothing more or less than knowing your people and treating them appropriately – hardly a new idea in military leadership! The small things matter and, usually, cost nothing (or almost nothing) to fix but people notice if you don’t do these things when you could, especially if they have asked you to. They also notice if you do, and that small investment in making life better for the people in your team will be repaid many times over. So the real question is: if you can make a positive change for the people in minority groups in your organisation, why wouldn’t you? It really is just good leadership.
Photographs: Crown Copyright