How I succumbed to the Obama effect

Craig Dearden-Phillips on what Barack means for voluntary sector leaders

I have been obsessing about this ever since his election as President of the United States earlier this month. By standing out so clearly from the middling greyness of political life, Obama seems to easily answer the age-old question of what good leadership looks like: he connects on a personal level; he raises one's sense of the possible; he makes one feel understood; and he urges us to find the best within ourselves.

But how many third sector boards appoint people with these inspirational qualities? How many chief executives do you know who have something of Obama about them? And what could our sector look like if we had more senior leaders with the kinds of qualities that Obama has shown?

There are lots of reasons, of course, why there are not more third sector Obamas. Being a leader in this sector is a very difficult job in which to shine brightly. It's a heads-down grind for much of the time. And it can be hard on the soul.

I count myself among the deficient. Over time, I have veered more towards managing, rather than leading. As a result, I have majored in my own learning on the technical skills (understanding balance sheets, HR, operations) rather than the competencies needed to inspire and motivate people.

I know I am not alone. I think the necessities of the job can push many people in these directions. It has changed me from the deeply idealistic, but managerially naive, young man who founded Speaking Up to the flintier manager-come-chief executive I am today. I am also aware that I carry a bigger sense of life's limitations - a sense that can at times drag my vision down with it.

Perhaps I am being a little hard on myself here. I still feel hope, and I burn with a big desire to make good things happen. But leading and inspiring others to join me - a task that once seemed so easy - now requires me to dig deeper, knowing, as I do, just how hard it can be to create lasting change.

I guess Obama knows how hard it is too. But the reason why he is a better leader than me - and most other people - is that he doesn't let this knowledge get in his way.

And that is why he inspires me.

- Craig Dearden-Phillips is chief executive of Speaking Up and writes in a personal capacity.

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