Leadership: Opinion - How management reached the voluntary sector

Twenty years ago, when I began providing consultancy to voluntary organisations, only a handful of people appreciated the power of effective leadership.

In the mid-80s, the senior employee was often called the general secretary. People who reported to him - nearly all male - were called heads of particular functions, the governing body was frequently known as the management committee and the real power usually lay with the quaintly named finance and general purposes committee. The distinction between governance and management hardly existed, and some organisations discouraged the use of the word 'management' because it was too closely associated with the bad world of business.

Today, the chief executive usually reports to a board that has audit, performance and nominations committees to oversee the governance of the organisation. The distinctive functions of governance and management are well articulated and chief executives of larger organisations typically have teams of directors to supervise their organisations. Managers are expected to provide leadership of their functions, and the crucial leadership role of the chief executive is understood and appreciated.

Management guru Peter Drucker was one of the first people to address the special issues of leading non-profit organisations, when he declared in 1990: "In the non-profit agency, mediocrity in leadership shows up almost immediately." More recently, Stephen Dobbs and Burt Nanus have described how to lead non-profit organisations in their excellent book Leaders Who Make a Difference.

Today, there are many ways for leaders to sharpen their skills: there are tools to diagnose leadership styles, 360-degree feedback systems, training courses, coaches and action-learning sets, to name just a few. Much of the voluminous literature on leading business and public service organisations also applies to the third sector, and there are many books and articles exclusively on the leadership of non-profit organisations.

So what is needed to help leaders develop their skills? First, boards and managers need to allow people time to invest in leadership development. Leaders need to reflect on their experiences, document what works for them and develop plans for addressing skill deficits. They should be encouraged to choose a mix of training and support that will yield the greatest benefits.

Second, most leaders are also led, either by boards or managers. People who are being led need to recognise that providing quality leadership is a subtle and demanding role. The leader's team can make leadership much easier by managing their boss, giving honest feedback when requested and being supportive rather than critical.

Finally, there is a pressing need for low-cost training, coaching and action-learning opportunities. The sooner these become more readily available, the greater the impact will be on the leadership of voluntary organisations.

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