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‘Principles define you as a person’

'One on One' with Sarb Bajwa, the British Psychological Society’s new Chief Executive.

12 April 2018

One reason I wanted the job
Well, I understand membership organisations and enjoy working with communities of experts, translating that into new products and services and then helping them to tell their story to a wider audience. So, I think I have some skills I can offer. Culturally, it seemed the right fit for my own values and outlook. The size of the job is demanding, and I enjoy the challenge this brings. Finally, I enjoy taking organisations and people on a journey, painting a vision of the future and how we’re going to get there.

The Society’s already started to take the first few steps on that road.

One guiding principle of leadership
I don’t think you can have one set of principles for your personal life and one for your professional life. Principles define you as a person. One of my principles is around integrity – being and behaving honestly. It is the basis for all relationships and for me the foundation of trust.

One place
Many places evoke memories at different stages of my life. I am fascinated by the past and probably should have read History or Classics at university. So from this perspective Istanbul and Rome stand out. Both wonderful cities and at their peak the centre of empires. Of course, running an empire demands the exercise of power and so in a modern context I also love Washington.

My most rewarding place in terms of my career is probably when I was working in Ethiopia. A wonderful, beautiful and fascinating country. For those old enough to remember, Ethiopia probably evokes memories of famine and Bob Geldof. However, it is a stunning country with a civilisation that stretches back to the Egyptians, gorgeous landscapes with major rivers, highlands, rolling savannahs and two rainy seasons a year, a cultural mix of Arab and African influences and a strong orthodox Christian faith. It really is stepping back in time as it operates on a different timescale, so you have 12 months of 30 days and one month of five or six days, and it differs from the Gregorian calendar so that it really is seven or eight years behind our calendar.

One ‘encounter’ with psychology
I received some coaching as part of a promotion in a previous role… though I was at first resistant to the idea, I very quickly realised that it was the best training I have ever undertaken. It has stayed with me to this day.

One priority for the British Psychological Society
Ensuring we deliver what our members want. That sounds like a rather generic answer but there’s a lot of work that needs to take place for us as an organisation to understand members’ priorities and needs, translate this into a vision, focus on our priorities and then deliver.

One album
Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. A close runner-up would be anything by the Velvet Underground. Clearly, my musical tastes are stuck in the past.

One favourite dish
I love food. I can narrow it down to particularly enjoying anything that comes from around the Mediterranean basin. In a tribute to childhood though, the odd fish finger sandwich always hits the spot.

One inspiration
My mother. A wonderful lady who is kind, open, bright and articulate and has made me the person I am today. From a historical perspective I have always been fascinated by Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, who clearly was a bit of a PR genius. From an intellectual perspective I think that the work done by Amartya Sen on the interaction and linkage of civil and political with economic, social and cultural rights is fascinating and ground-breaking.

One book
I seem to go through phases in my reading habits. So, when I was 19, I was transfixed by the Beat movement so Jack Kerouac was an idol. Moving through genres of literature there is Bulgakov for magical realism; Dostoevsky for the Russian soul; Don Delillo, John Updike and Saul Bellow for the modern American masterpiece; and Chinua Achebe is unbeatable for colonial literature.

One superpower
For someone who loves history, clearly the ability to travel through time would be invaluable.

One thing about yourself you still don’t understand
In my head I imagine myself to be about 5’10” tall when in reality I am almost 6’3”. This misalignment means that I am, especially when tired, clumsy… my limbs seem to extend far further than I think they can!

One joke
The past, present and future walk into a bar… It was tense.

One piece of advice for someone starting a new job
Talk to everyone and get to understand the business as quickly as you can.

Photo: Jon Sutton