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Why an environment where people are accepted for who they are allows them to be their best - Mark Malcomson

21 March 2024

By Mark Malcomson CBE, principal and CEO of City Lit

So, in hindsight, if you didn’t want to give away your sexuality in Merseyside in the 1970’s, would you choose to like Abba and disco when all your mates were either into heavy metal or punk rock? Well, I did, and at least I can look back and say my music choices stood the test of time. I did my best to conform and hide who I truly was, but obviously left some clues.

It took me until my early 30’s to come out to friends and family and then a process of another decade to come out, in stages, at work. I was something of a late developer in today’s terms, but at the same time, many of my generation got trapped in the closet, never to come out. My journey is my journey, and I am sure that every gay person has a different story to tell.

Being out and gay where and when I grew up wouldn’t have been impossible, but it would have taken a bravery that I don’t possess. Society in my youth was overwhelmingly homophobic. Whether it be comments from schoolmates, parents, teachers, politicians, etc, it was relentlessly negative and often vile. Trying to conform was the approach you took as a matter of self-preservation.

Going to university in Edinburgh in 1982 was a great, life changing experience in many ways, but Scotland, which had only decriminalised being gay the year before, felt no more liberal or accepting than the north of England at that time. Starting work in London in banking as a graduate trainee four years later added more challenge, as the industry wasn’t the pride-loving one we know now. There was one openly gay guy at work, and everyone knew and commented - not in a positive way!

We often think that the situation would have improved ever so slowly, but it didn’t get any better over the following years with AIDS and Thatcher’s appalling Section 28 poisoning the debate around acceptance and equality.

However, gradually, things did progress, both in terms of society and the workplace. I came out selectively to colleagues in the 90’s, and found the response wasn’t what I had feared. I then went to work for Pearson, which was a wonderfully enlightened place to work, allowing me to develop my leadership style in a way that was more me, and then on to London Business School.

I am now a principal of one of the greatest education institutions in the UK (of course, I would say that, wouldn’t I!). City Lit is in so many ways a positive place for adults to be themselves, whether they are students or staff, in the true tradition of adult education. Coming in as a new principal thirteen years ago, I felt that it was a place I could be myself and be open about who I was. Still, I had some worries about how you will be perceived as a newcomer and the boss. The reality was there was more concern about my business background than my sexuality. My partner is a regular student at the college both online and in-person and attends lots of our events as a supportive spouse. No-one seems to bat an eyelid when I mention my American husband or my daughter being adopted from China, and that is the way it should be, whatever level of the organisation I am at.

In their book about authentic leadership “Why should anyone be led by you?” my former London Business School colleagues, Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, extol the virtues of leaders playing to their strengths and being comfortable in who they are.

"They walk their talk. They are consistent in what they say and what they do, practicing what they are preaching.”


“Another quality of inspirational leaders is that they capitalize on what’s unique about themselves. In fact, using these differences to great advantage….”

I would argue that being your true self, in a safe environment, takes so much pressure off an individual to constantly check yourself and removes another layer of pressure to how you perform. Having an environment where you can use the many skills you have is crucial to getting the best out of your job and the organisation getting the best out of you.

I have got to know Ed Balls over the last decade, as he is a former stammering student at City Lit. I have worked with him on many occasions and have come to really like and respect him. He talks about his stammer movingly in his book Speaking Out: “The most important thing I learned, though, was that I had a stammer and it was just part of who I was.”

That is true for every element of diversity, accepting it as part of you, again in a safe environment, allows you to perform better and focus on the way you do your work.

This article isn’t something that I could ever have imagined writing four decades ago when I first came down to work in London. I know there is still a long way to go in many areas of equity, diversity and inclusion. I fervently believe that it is in the interests of every individual and every organisation to make the most of the talent at their disposal and the way to do that is create an environment where people are accepted for who they are and what they bring. I couldn’t do what I do, or be who I truly am, if I was constantly checking everything I say and self-censoring the way I act.

I was interviewing former ambassador Tom Fletcher at the college a couple of years ago. My partner came up behind me before the event started and ruffled my hair affectionately. Tom looked a little shocked, I assume thinking it was slightly strange that students wantonly go around accosting the principal. I turned around and saw Tony, and said, “Oh, this is my husband,” at which point Tom beamed and dived over to meet him. It was a lovely casual interaction, that put me in a great mood for the interview, which went exceptionally well.

So, with that, I leave you with the words of the fabulous disco diva, Gloria Gaynor:

“It's my world that I want to have a little pride in
My world and it's not a place I have to hide in
Life's not worth a damn
'Til you can say, I am what I am.”

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.