The dominant story in the UK, besides the fiasco around Brexit and the Conservative Party leadership, is that surrounding Manchester City and England footballer Raheem Sterling. Sterling’s abuse at the hands of some Chelsea fans and his subsequent pointing out of racist reporting and bias has created a tsunami around the topic of racism – not just in football but also as a deeply embedded cancer within UK society at large. Of course it is not an issue confined to the UK.

A brief recap might be in order for anyone unaware of the story – the only possible excuse for such being that you were vacationing on the spacelab. As implausible as that is, I suspect that even there you should have heard about it.

Over the weekend, in the much-anticipated clash between Chelsea and Manchester City at Chelsea’s home ground Stamford Bridge, some boorish, white middle-aged men hurled a torrent of allegedly racist abuse at Manchester City player Raheem Sterling as he retrieved the ball from near the touchline. Images of the ‘fans’ hate-filled contorted faces shocked the nation as it provided a mirror to something seriously wrong at a far deeper level than that confined to a football stadium. Racial vitriol masked as loyalty and excused as tribalism. The thing that shocked was that these fans were not in their early twenties (not that this would somehow make it acceptable) – they had done with ‘growing-up’ – or should have, no, the thing that shocked was that these fans were all middle-aged men, most likely with respectable jobs and grown-up kids. It is an image that is hard to get out of one’s head. Equally compelling is the expression on Raheem Sterling face – he is smiling! Where most would be wound-up by this sickening treatment, Sterling’s response is remarkable in his self-control. His explanation? He has heard it all so many times before he has become accustomed to it and therein lies the real tragedy – this behaviour has become endemic.

The second part of the story was then Sterling’s subsequent comments around how the media fuels this endemic racism in how they report. He gives the telling example of two fellow Manchester City players – both young, one white and one black who buy houses. The reports surrounding the young black player’s purchase were that of over-paid indulgence whilst the white player was lauded for buying the house for his mother. Boom…there it is! Another mirror held up and with it the growing realisation of just how deep this problem goes. Of course whilst this is news for many (aka whites), it is anything but for those who have ‘learnt to smile’ in the face of what for them is a daily reality.

So, that is the backdrop to the point I am leading to and that is the deafening silence by those in charge of the beautiful game. The silence from Richard Scudamore (Premier league executive chairman, Greg Clarke (FA chairman) and Bruce Buck (Chelsea chairman) is deafening. Where are they? Do they think that they don’t need to say anything because all that needs to be said is being done by the Kick It Out representatives? Do they think that what needs to be said is best left to Monday Night Football and the football pundits? And now, even if they do say something, the real moment and opportunity has been lost. They have once again been to slow to act. Their inertia and malaise is telling. Timing in leadership is so important.

It is time for leaders to be taking a stand – long overdue in truth and it is a stand that needs to go far beyond the anaemic statements of political correctness.

When it comes to racism, leaders need to take a stand. They need to come out strongly, swiftly and be willing to back their words with action. Their failure allows racism to morph and go even deeper. It allows ‘nice racists’ (a term coined by colleague Graeme Codrington) to remain undetected, excused and hidden…until that is they forget themselves at a football match and their real colours are exposed!

The problem is that I don’t see enough being done – really being done, around the well-worn ‘diversity and inclusion’ agenda within business. Those tasked with Executive Development are too afraid to really expose and deal with the topic (usually for fear of ‘upsetting their clients’) and so a merry-dance is perpetuated where everyone knows about the problem but won’t act on it. A lot of words are spoken but nothing really done to acknowledge, confront and engage with the issue. The problem of ‘political correctness’ is that it keeps us from even acknowledging the problem in the first place. Audrey Lorde in Our dead Behind Us wrote, “It is not our difference that divides us. It is our inability to recognise, accept and celebrate those differences.

Learning how to be ‘different together’ starts with understanding how we are different from each other and then desiring and knowing how to move towards being different for each other. The benefits of diversity are well documented and they are benefits we need in both our companies and in society at large. In pointing others towards this journey – different from to different for to different together, leaders need to play a more active role. They need to be heard and be seen; they need to be at the front, the back and in the middle; they need to be willing to themselves do the work it takes to embrace their own biases and prejudices – and in so doing set the standard.

I think the shock of the story articulated is that it has taken a young footballer – in both his response and words, to shake the many out of their complacency and inaction. Sterling has revealed just how much remains to be done and he has exposed the shallow progress since the famous image of Liverpool’s John Barnes back-heeling a banana skin that had been thrown at him.

Leaders need to do more. They need to insist that this needs to be engaged within their own institutions and not rest until it has been opened-up and meaningfully engaged. They need to embolden and empower others to do the work necessary and then be the first in line to do that work. They need to demand that it is work that will be done, accept that it will be on-going and understand that there can be no respite given what is at stake.

What an opportunity we have thanks to the remarkable actions of a young footballer who has opened the door (yet again) for us all. It is a door that leaders need to walk through and ensure that the necessary work is done. So far, those within the football elite have failed to even get up from behind their large comfortable desks and in their failure is further evidence of just how much needs to be done.

Thank you Raheem for showing us the way. Leaders, it is time to act.

Let’s chat if you’d like more information on our ‘Different together – the power of understanding difference differently’ keynote presentation.

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