I want to caveat this piece by saying: I know I’m not the only working class chief executive. I’m also not offering tips on how to galvanise the resistance. Sometimes people say to me “You’re so real.” I resist the urge to shout back “What does that even mean?”
It can be interpreted as authenticity, that I am able to show my true self. This is something to be proud of. Except that, in my mind, “real” also says something about class or social position. A friend of mine recently joked “Yes, that ‘real’ thing, do people know it’s just an accent?”
I notice the disquiet in some people’s eyes when I reveal I am the chief executive of a leading mental health charity. With some, it’s just a flicker, a small twitch, for others the surprise is palpable. I cruelly imagine what would happen if I burst into a rendition of My Old Man’s a Dustman.
I have been asked whether I think it’s to do with my gender or my appearance (big woman with tattoos I can’t hide). I might be in denial but I have often felt it was something to do with class. I’ve found myself wondering whether class is still a real thing, how much has my class defined my leadership approach, and how my professional life has altered my working class perspective.
There is a shift from ideas about position, status and gravitas to a more contemporary focus on knowledge, authenticity and presence.
One of the female leaders I look up to told me that her mantra is “know yourself, be yourself”. This was a huge relief.
I often consider my immigrant heritage and wonder what my family, particularly my dad, who grew up in such poverty, would think about my new role. Sometimes this leaves me with a fleeting sense of betrayal, but I smile and imagine myself shouting “vive la revolution” and all is right again. It isn’t as flippant as it sounds.
There is no doubt I grew up with a sense of working class injustice. I didn’t imagine when I was a student, drinking into the night conspiring social change, that I would someday be a leader.
I believe there is a sincere shift from traditional leadership ideas about position, status and gravitas to a more contemporary (and one could argue less class-biased) focus on knowledge, authenticity and presence. But I’m not convinced we are there yet.