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The Defence Academy of the United Kingdom held an innovative, first-of-its kind conference yesterday (4 March 2020) exploring how to engage those who feel conflicted or excluded from the conversation about diversity and inclusivity.
As a centre for excellence, the Defence Academy was uniquely placed to hold this event as it provides the gold standard of professional military education across the three services.
Senior leaders from across the MOD and 18 support networks (including BAME, LGBT+, faith, disability, gender, neuro-diversity) were on-hand as evidence that diversity and inclusivity is the defining leadership challenge and opportunity in the modern military.
Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston opened the event stating:
“There is an overwhelming case across the MOD for diversity. Morally, it is right thing to do. Legally, we are required to guard against discrimination. Culture and performance is not a trade-off. We can be a world class fighting force and be a good place to work where everyone thrives.”
Director General of Finance Cat Little delivered the keynote address:
“You can’t be the best leader until you know who you are. You must bring your whole self to work. We have to create an environment that is psychologically safe where people can bring their whole self to work.”
Maj Gen Andrew Roe said:
“Diversity is about everyone being seated at the table, while inclusivity is about everyone having a voice at the table. You are seated at that table, so let’s hear your voice clearly as we have ‘The Big Conversation’. Each and every person here at the Defence Academy must take this up with energy, resolve and purpose.”
So why the Big Conversation?
The idea for The Big Conversation came from a small conversation on the drive home from an LGBT+ conference. It was a great event, with some incredible speakers telling their inspiring stories.
I am relatively new to LBGT+ conferences, and they are always an uplifting experience that help the LGBT+ community build resilience and grow allies. They are incredibly important for personal development and for changing institutional behaviours; however, it struck me and my passenger that day, that such conferences are mostly attended by the LGBT+ community themselves and their already staunch allies. For both of us, there was something missing?
Defence has come a long way in the past 20 years since the lifting of the LGB ban, and in some ways leads society on inclusivity, but we are far from mission accomplished! Women and the BAME community remain underrepresented; we don’t fully understand or exploit the potential of our neuro-diverse population; and bullying and harassment on the grounds of discrimination remains a problem. Yet diversity and inclusivity should not be about combatting bullying and harassment (although it must), it should fundamentally be about team building and should be outcome focused. Recognizing that sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, faith or any other characteristic does not determine an individual’s value in the team, but collectively diversity is a strength and a diverse team will be stronger if everyone has a voice and can fulfil their human potential.
Most understand this and will consider themselves to be good people who are tolerant and accepting of others. But as leaders we need to be more than good individuals and we need to go further than tolerance and acceptance. We need to understand our people and the challenges they face, and give them the opportunity to bring their best version of themselves to work. Ours is no ordinary job and this is not a liberal agenda; this is a hard headed approach to operational effectiveness. This required a Big Conversation.
The Defence Academy is uniquely placed to have that conversation. In doing so we must make the operational argument for inclusivity; be willing to learn from other organisations; acknowledge the ongoing challenge and identify where we could do better; but we must also celebrate our progress and success.
Today’s conference was the start of that conversation. However, it is a conversation we must keep having on our ships, battalions, squadrons, and teams. It is a conversation that should be integral to our core values and ethos and it should take place in our meeting rooms, coffee bars and crew rooms.
Wg Cdr H R Whitehill, Organiser of the Big Conversation
Watch the video from the day of The Big Conversation.