In perspective: what can we learn from the leadership path of Kick It Out chair Sanjay Bhandari

Wed 26 Jan 2022

In perspective: what can we learn from the leadership path of Kick It Out chair Sanjay Bhandari

The key takeaway messages that the chair of football charity Kick It Out shared at BAME into Leadership conference

By Murielle Gonzalez

Race equality champion Sanjay Bhandari is a leading figure in the inclusion and diversity space — you may know him for his role as chair of football charity Kick It Out. Bhandari spearheads efforts to tackle all forms of discrimination in the game, from the pitch to the terraces and the boardroom.

A lawyer by trade, Bhandari has a multifaceted professional career  he has been a partner at consultancy firm EY and holds several non-executive roles at various organisations. He is also a keen mentor of young leaders and an investor in the film industry. "I haven't followed a traditional career path, nor do I exhibit traditional leadership behaviours, and that's because of who I am," Bhandari said at the 2020 BAME into Leadership conference as he set the tone for a session drawn from personal experience.

BAME into Leadership is one of Dods Diversity & Inclusion's flagship conference series, organised in partnership with civil service trade union FDA. Events tour the UK, offering hands-on advice and personal coaching on adapting to new environments, expanding networks, utilising opportunities effectively, and furthering your career in times of change. The 2022 edition marks the return to in-person events, and the series begins on 24 March in Birmingham — register to attend and read on to revisit Bhandari's presentation, a beacon of the calibre of inspirational speakers that these events gather.

For example, the words of Sanjay Bhandari still resonate today. "Who am I?" he said, noting that the question is key to building your profile as a leader. 

The answer, however, depends on the lenses people decide to look through. He explained: "My LinkedIn profile will tell you about my portfolio career and that I'm chair of Kick It Out, but your perspective of me may differ, depending on whether you see my Facebook or Twitter profile, or my Instagram feed, which I think are mostly pictures of my cat. These [different profiles] are part of understanding leadership."

Sanjay Bhandari

Getting to know you

Reflecting on what leadership books, courses and motivational speakers have taught him, Bhandari said: "All leadership advice amount to one thing — to be yourself. But it is difficult because from the age of 16 to the 30s, we are taught to assimilate and behave in a certain way, whichever organisation we are in." Bhandari noted the dissonance comes up when people want to see more of you as a person. 

Bhandari also recognised that the question about what type of leader you want to be will inevitably pop up as you progress in your leadership journey. He explained that we all have a perception of what a leader is or how a leader behaves. However, one of the challenges we face, particularly in times of upheaval or when people are making decisions under stress, is to fall into the trap of the default model of a leader.

"Generally, the default model of a leader doesn't look like me and probably doesn't have my attributes — the default model of a leader for most people is a white man," he said. For Bhandari, Black, Asian & Ethnic Minority individuals must learn to lead in their own style.

"Thankfully, the society is moving away from that Trumpian-style leader, but in moments of stress, there's still a tendency to go back to it. Your responsibility as leaders is to remind people that those models are always subject to challenge," Bhandari said.

He also encouraged us to challenge the so-called baggage everyone carries. "Not just your personal baggage but the cultural baggage — the perceptions people have of you based on who you are," he warned.

Taking his experience as an example, Bhandari said that people have assumed that because he is Asian, he would be quiet or low-key. "I will disabuse them of that quite regularly. I'm not the shy and retiring type!" he enthused.

For Bhandari, the key to turning the challenge of baggage into a 'be-yourself opportunity' is not letting whatever you have done define you. 

He described the many hats he has worn in life and reminded us that becoming a leader "is about bringing your whole self to work" and letting people know about you. "The basis of getting any empathy with other people is trust," he added, noting trust is something you build with honest disclosure.

"Disclosure is about being happy to talk about yourself and bring your whole self to work," he explained. "I can show you the picture of the lawyer, and I can show you all the technology and entrepreneurial stuff that made me successful; that's my LinkedIn profile to impress you, but it doesn't enable me to connect with you," he said. "What connects me with you is the picture of my cat."

Pointing out at photos depicting the many facets of his career, Bhandari encouraged us to map our lives, too. "Just have a go at producing one page like that to tell you about the little bits that are part of your life," he said. "These are the bits that will create the connections."

Join the BAME into Leadership Spring Conference in Birmingham on 24 March for networking and personal coaching like no other. The event will examine how Black, Asian & Ethnic Minority individuals can continue to overcome barriers, build networks, and become the leaders they aspire to be. Secure your place today.

Some sessions you don't want to miss:

  • Keynote address by Grace Ononiwu, Director of Legal Services, Crown Prosecution Service, on challenging traditional leadership paths & behaviours
  • Permanent Secretary Address by Bernadette Kelly, Permanent Secretary, Department for Transport and Civil Service; Social Mobility Champion, on Compassionate Leadership: creating a culture of inclusivity and inspiring positive change
  • Panel Discussion: Being the only one in the room: from imposter to empowered

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Murielle Gonzalez, content strategy manager at Dods Diversity & Inclusion, is an experienced journalist and editor. She can be reached on

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