Becoming culturally competent: a mission

Jun 5, 2023

Maybe you didn’t intend to build or support an unfair reality, but you can change it, now that you are learning how. This is every leader’s most sacred responsibility, particularly if their road to leadership has been smoother because of their identity.

Jennifer Brown, How to be an Inclusive Leader (2019)

The Leadership Centre has committed itself to becoming culturally competent. That is, exemplifying “a set of congruent behaviours, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or among professionals that enable effective work in cross cultural situations.”[1] As an organisation, we are at the early stages of this journey – and the team is keen to do this ‘in the light’ as much as possible, so that we can both draw help in, whilst being held to account for how we progress. This article is part of that approach.

A graphic showing the cultural competence continum

Our rationale for cultural competency is straightforward: this is a small organisation at the heart of a larger community of practitioners, which supports leadership in a multiplicity of places, scales, and contexts. It is in the interests of both our clients and our work that the organisation plays its part in embracing, understanding, and nurturing the many ways that leadership can occur. Our diverse programmes have been testament to this, from community-led change in Let’s Go Southall to investing into senior leaders in Future Vision.

However, doing this properly means approaching our commitment to serving diverse leadership with rigour: crucially, in how we ensure that we have diversity of thought, experience, and ethnicity in our community of practitioners, as well as how we broaden from where and whom our learning and practice is drawn. I cannot fault the intellectual curiosity of the organisation as it stands, or its openness to working with people in all their diversity, but the Leadership Centre is not diverse enough, and we need to own the responsibility of changing that.

Thankfully, we have people in the Leadership Centre community who (literally) wrote the book on cultural competency, and have invested into helping us develop and improve: Meera Spillett and Rosemary Campbell-Stephens. Our starting point was to spend some good time immersing ourselves in what cultural competency is and what it means – so we invested two days into this, with Meera and Rosemary guiding us (along with Dr Keith Jarrett, who boosted our creative juices on the first evening). They were at pains to remind us that is always fine not to know things, as long as you are open to learning when the opportunity arises. The following does not cover everything, but gives you a flavour.

Meera and Rosemary used Public Narrative as a way to help us consider our values, and how those values sit in a wider, global ‘us’. We delved into the language around race and discrimination, thinking about the power dynamics and implications of terms like BAME, which are often used with good intentions, but contribute to maintaining the power imbalances that feed racism and discrimination – whereas global majority, racialised, and minoritised play constructive roles in addressing those imbalances. Paying attention to how global majority partners, colleagues, and clients talk about themselves is important here, and that is an easy shift that the organisation can make.

We talked about inclusion, and (to quote Professor George J. Sefa Dei): “inclusion is not bringing people into what already exists: it is making a new space, a better space for everyone.” This is demonstrably a challenge regardless of whether you are thinking of physical spaces, or the human spaces made by organisations – so will be an important part of our developing thinking on how we work, and how we support leaders grappling with cultural competency issues. Connected to this was a wonderful discussion on being an accomplice. We watched this video with Dr. Yaba Blay, which landed the point beautifully: you can’t sit back, labelling yourself an ally – you have to act, you have to take a risk, you have to invest.

Finally, we examined approaches that we have used in the past that have roots in racist, discredited systems of thought, like eugenics. These are easy to leave behind. Positively, we also explored some global majority leadership models – models we rarely use or even mention at the Leadership Centre, but that have huge potential and value for our clients and the long-term, global challenges they are working to: Ubuntu, Seva, and Māori.

So what are we going to do. Firstly, we are going to make a plan – this will consider:

  1. People: who do we bring into the organisation – staff, enablers, trustees, partners – how do we design their pathways in, and how do we support and develop everyone, regardless of how long they have been with us.
  2. Scope: what do we currently do that is good practice, and what do we need to stop, shift, or change?
  3. Learning: we want to deepen our understanding of global majority leadership and bring that expertise and understanding into the organisation.

Some of this will not be comfortable, and nor should it be. But we will be a better organisation for it.

[1] ‘Towards a Culturally Competent System of Care’, Terry L. Cross, Barbara J. Bazron, Karl W. Dennis, Mareasa R Isaacs, Volume I. Washington, DC: CASSP, mental Health policy, Georgetown University Child Development Center, 1989:


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