Building good leadership is often thought of in terms of the resources or ingredients that are put into someone, when really it’s more about drawing certain qualities out.
The traits of a good leader depend on the innate style of the individual: their personality, and the strengths and skills they have cultivated over time. There is no blueprint or structured path to follow; each leader uses their natural qualities to understand and adjust to their own particular working context.
During arguably one of the toughest times in social sector history, how can good leaders be nurtured and encouraged to grow?
We recently explored the challenges faced by current leaders at a roundtable held in partnership with the Big Lottery Fund. Many have been exhaustively documented: a drop in funding, changes to the commissioning environment, increased accountability and declining public trust. But we’re far less used to talking about the effect this is having on our leaders, who – for the time-being, and we suspect for some time to come – are having to think very much in the short term.
Faced with knottier problems, much more legislation and restricting budgets, social sector leaders are having to do more with less in order to survive. This means that they are increasingly valued for the networks they have and their ability to raise funds.
However, to innovate and bring fresh new ideas to the social sector, leaders need to be game-changers too – people who step outside the box and think of new ways to solve persisting social challenges, which, in turn, alter the landscape of the social sector. Conversely, funders tend to prefer game-players – people who behave predictably, who follow funding protocols and who act and think in a similar way to them.
The knock on effect of all this is that the social sector hardly ever recruits from within. New leaders – found in other sectors – bring with them new contacts and new opportunities for funding: a much more attractive proposition.
But given that the social sector is unique in its challenges and in the qualities it needs from its leaders, how can we focus on those already driving the sector forward? How can we “draw out” the best in our people to support organisational stability and sustainability?
It’s far more important to recruit people, rather than roles, and to invest in them.
Succession planning – the process for identifying and developing internal people with the potential to fill key leadership positions – cannot work if future leaders do not know they’re lacking skills. We should reflect on what is needed to become a successful leader within our own organisations, diagnose any gaps and invest in those individuals coming up the ranks.
We could also do more to encourage peer learning and collaboration. The social sector is notoriously territorial: resources are hard won and increasingly limited. Organisations often pass up the chance to collaborate due to distrust, when it could provide leaders with some of their most important opportunities. Learning from and sharing with our peers not only supports the transfer of new and original insights, it also allows future leaders to develop all-important soft skills. We should train our people in collaborative skills that will help charities and social enterprises achieve what may have been previously out of reach – which means more impact for the organisation.
Identifying leadership gaps in those already working within the sector will give future leaders the platform to develop the skills they need, which peer learning will only serve to strengthen. By sharing skills, organisations can potentially unlock the qualities needed for an individual to develop as a future leader of the social sector.