December 17, 2019
What kind of leadership?
We can probably all agree that leadership plays an important part within any organisation. But there is much less consensus around what those leadership qualities should be and indeed, what sort of qualities are needed for different roles in different situations. Julia Unwin, who chaired the recently published Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society, suggests we need to think about leadership in a very different way if our sector is to have any chance of thriving in what she describes as the ‘perilous and frightening decade’ that lies ahead.
Nobody doubts that we are entering a turbulent and damaging decade. The deep social divisions which have grown in the last decade seem likely to fester and wreak even more havoc and the volatility expected of both the economy and the climate are going to bring massive risks to us all. As we argued in Civil Society Futures a year ago, we need a renewed and re-energised civil society to step into its historic role : to help heal our dented democracy by enabling participation and deliberation, to stitch together our torn social fabric, and to enable us to respond to the devastation and challenge of the climate emergency.
To do this we need leaders who are different from the leaders of the past. We need people who are deeply connected to communities, who can work nimbly across institutional boundaries, and who are not afraid of their own vulnerability. We need leaders who are, as I said when I launched the Inquiry, both humble and bold. We need to encourage and enable a whole new generation of people who will almost certainly not look like the leaders of the past. People who will bring different styles and approaches. And we will need to change our mental picture of leadership away from the all- singing, all-dancing heroic figure, to people who can both challenge and support, build a team, bring different approaches to the task of what we loosely call leadership.
This new and different kind of leadership will be about how we thrive in the next perilous and frightening new decade. It will be about fairness, and about diversity – of course. But is also about our futures – and the risks of failing in this challenge are massive.
Are our current practices for designing roles encouraging applications and making appointments up to this challenge?
It seems to me that they are not.
We have had decades worrying about where the supply of new leaders will come from. There have been programmes to support women, and people from black and ethnic minority communities in their quest to develop as leaders. (As if there weren’t thousands of already brilliant and experienced black and female leaders). And we’ve had decades of fretting about the demand side – do our boards really have the intent and the courage to appoint people who break the mould?
And yet, too often senior roles are described exactly as they might have been thirty years ago. The same sets of words – about gravitas (a quality that I’ve never understood, and have always associated with a certain sort of rather pompous entitlement), about administrative and financial acumen, (even though these skills need to be throughout the organisation) about deep and wide networks, (meaning particular and recognised ones) about inspirational leadership, about intellectual prowess – appear with monotonous regularity to describe exactly the sort of person who might have been ideal for the organisation of the past. And then, after the role has been described, we ask professional recruiters, or our own networks, to find someone who fits the bill. And we put them through a selection process that asks the same sorts of questions, makes a judgement about their performance on the day, and, with the same monotonous regularity, fails to really change the nature of leadership.
Now of course there are excellent leaders throughout civil society. There are people – paid and unpaid, acknowledged or not – who are leading complex and contradictory organisations with skill and flair. And they report, privately, that their roles are increasingly challenging, hard to get right and are stretching the very competence that they once presented so beautifully to a selection panel.
But the times are too dangerous for us to simply do what we’ve always done. That way lies real, and I think, existential risk. If we are to thrive in the second decade of the 21st century, we need different approaches to leadership – to job design, to selection, to appointment.
How would it be if we did things differently? Could boards of trustees invite tenders from possible leaders – propositions of what they could achieve for the organisation, but also what they would need? Could assessment criteria include the depths of connections? The personal experience? Could boards bring in people to help them identify the potential, not just the reputation, of those in front of them? Could boards themselves learn to evaluate beliefs and values as much as they value track record? Could we start to see tenders coming from teams of people who describe what they offer collectively? Could the interview process include you-tube videos of work in a particularly challenging situation? Could we devise more inter active ways of thinking about organisational fit and challenge? Could appointment negotiations include a discussion about who else is needed on the top team, and what external support is required? Could we, in short, revolutionise the process of appointing leaders, and build the sort of flexible, deeply connected, agile teams that we always say we want?
The skills and behaviour many of us learned as we progressed through our careers are turning out not to be the skills that are needed. Isn’t it time we re-thought how we go about finding the people who will help civil society make its historic contribution in the hazardous times ahead?
If we don’t, we will fail in our historic role to contribute most when times are hardest. And that would really be unforgivable.