Is civil society becoming a better reflection of the world?

Sarah Hughes, 15 November 2017

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.

Sarah Hughes is chief executive at the Centre for Mental Health. Previously, Sarah led Mind in Cambridgeshire and led the research and evaluation of the First Night in Custody project at Holloway Prison.