‘Do as I say, not as I do!’: Why radicalism requires self-awareness

Organisations which claim to challenge or seek to change the power structures of society too often mimic those power structures in their own organisations.

Liam Barrington-Bush
4 February 2014

A Swiss bank board room c 1920 - wikimedia

‘Do as I say, not as I do!’

The satirical advice of a bad parent shouldn’t so effectively mirror that of our leaders and institutions.

Yet it does.

The contradictions are all around us; in politics, in business, in voluntary organisations. They stem from a challenge that affects all of us to varying degrees; that it is easier to point at problems happening elsewhere than it is to acknowledge the ways we are a part of them.

While it can be easy to see someone else’s hypocrisy, it is much harder to see our own often-contradictory roles with any objectivity. It is harder still when we are in situations where we experience and exercise high levels of privilege, a reality that is probably the norm for most MPs and Cabinet Ministers, CEOs and Executive Directors. In short, privilege is as assumed as the air we breathe for most traditional leaders, providing insulation from any more objective critique of the roles we play in our work and our lives.

Let’s bring the issue into focus a bit.

If you ask a remotely-progressive white male MP about the disproportionate representation of white men in Parliament, they are likely to acknowledge that this is a systemic issue that needs to be addressed.

Yet if you ask the same white male MP about their own journey to Parliament, it is likely to be explained as a story of good grades, hard work and democratic mandate.

Never shall these two narratives meet. (Imagine the impact if all those white male MPs who’ve expressed a commitment to race and gender equality, stood down in protest one day… would it speed the rate of change toward a more equal system if 62% of MPs acknowledged they were perpetuating an oppressive system?)

Similarly, if you ask a more radical white male NGO or union leader about their sectors, you will likely hear one of a number of scathing critiques of the lack of systemic understanding of the issues we face, the inclination to pander to government, the inability to truly address inequality, etc.

Yet if you look at that same leader’s role in their own organisation, odds are almost certain they are running an entirely undemocratic institution themselves; that they and their senior managers are most likely to be white and male, and paid considerably more than the rest of their staff; that those they promote are likely those that have been most effective at pleasing their bosses, rather than those who have been most radical themselves. In other words, they have perpetuated a conservative institution, while espousing radical values about the world beyond its walls.

But the organisation is part of the wider world. Just as Parliament is (however foreign it feels!). Casting blame elsewhere, without looking within and around ourselves is unlikely to lead us into the world we say we want to live in. If we can’t manifest democracy and equality in our organisational forms, what makes us think we can do so beyond them?

As Alessandra Pigni, writing about aid organisations, recently wrote at, “With their ‘Jurassic’ structures they refuse to transform themselves while wanting to change others. Often, the trouble with aid is…aid organisations.

“…It’s actually becoming depressing to see how good NGOs are getting at recognising the shortcomings of ‘the system’ and then not changing a thing about their own organisation.”

We can’t continue to pretend we can create change in the wider world, without – at least in some measure – seeing ourselves as part of the problem.

We all have blind spots. But systems built on explicit hierarchy and implicit privilege make these blind spots the rule, rather than the exception.

Let me explain.

By definition, those of us with privilege in certain situations exercise a level of power over those of us that lack it in those same moments. At the same time, hierarchy reinforces privilege, as those who have the connections and resources (i.e. – privilege), tend to rise up through hierarchical structures most easily, offering them additional power as they ascend the rungs of so many institutional ladders.

An acknowledgment of privilege is an acknowledgment that there is no ‘even playing field’ and that systems based on a relative few ‘getting ahead’ over the rest, will be systems that perpetuate and accentuate the existing power inequalities of the situation.

This is where the blind spots come from: hierarchy magnifies privilege; privilege magnifies hierarchy.

But there’s another piece of the story here as well. Privilege and hierarchy also create distance, disconnection, isolation; they separate the experiences of the few from the experiences of the many. In doing so, they make it far easier to ignore our own contradictions, as we become increasingly surrounded by others with whom we share particular contradictions. Those contradictions start to become normal. We don’t spend time with enough others who are different from us, to see how our experiences and assumptions differ from theirs.

So if we want leadership that doesn’t spend so much time telling the rest of us to ‘do as we say, not as we do,’ we need to abandon the leadership we know – a leadership of few over many, a leadership built on hierarchy and privilege.

We also need to stop pretending we can address privilege without addressing the hierarchies with which it is so closely entwined. Our mere presence, when we accept positions of power within hierarchies, validates the current order, even if our aim is to create ‘change from within.’

The alternative that might allow us to actively challenge hierarchy and privilege has been roundly dismissed across all sectors, but it continues to thrive beyond most of our institutions. In some circles it is called ‘leaderlessness’ (somewhat ironically, as it in fact involves infinitely more leaders than our traditional approach). It has been described by others as ‘having a leader in every chair.’ It has been core to countless indigenous traditions around the world, is the basis of many anarchist and wider activist organising methods, and it grounds a range of global online and tech-focused communities and companies, even.

Whatever we call it, this alternative understanding of leadership makes clear that we all have unique skills, perspectives and experiences that give us the innate ability to lead in some moments, and follow in others. This leadership is a far more transient notion than our job titles and elected positions allow it to be, and in its transience, helps prevent us from getting trapped in the bubbles of hierarchy and privilege that our current approach requires of us.

So what do I suggest for our PMs, MPs, CEOs, EDs and so many others who have occupied traditional leadership roles for so long, but want to create a better world?

Get out of the way. Make a statement of it, but go.

The current structures don’t work. We may think we’re mitigating against the worst of their impacts, but are instead legitimising them, delaying their much-needed departure.

There are plenty of other places we can take our gifts and our energy to make change, without subconsciously propping-up the architecture of the status quo through the roles we inhabit.

More critically, we can’t pretend that change is something ‘that others need to do,’ without also acknowledging that it is something we must be a part of as well. And extracting ourselves from positions in which we hold power over others is a first step to changing a system built on few holding power over many.

By becoming aware of, and actively challenging our own contradictions, we remove significant barriers to the wider changes we are trying to enable. Ultimately, the success or failure of our attempts to make the world a better place will rely on being able to turn this awareness into action.

This piece first appeared on the Compass blog


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