Mark Flannagan: Sometimes leaders just have to lead

We can learn from the fire at Grenfell Tower that on occasion leaders have to take control and kick some backsides to get things done

Mark Flannagan
Mark Flannagan

The recent fire at Grenfell Tower in west London has exposed the failings of our political leaders. The Prime Minister has struggled to lead as others want her to in a manner that clearly runs counter to her own personality. She and others in positions of power have failed to give an immediate, visible and unambiguous response to the events. No one individual took immediate control, demanded and coordinated action on the ground and made it clear that there was an urgent, daily need for direct answers to those affected. As Prime Minister, Theresa May can, in theory, wield power and authority in such circumstances that no one else can. Even with her much-diminished political authority, this was an occasion where she could have asserted her right to take control and, to be blunt, kicked some backsides to get things done.

Now, think about our sector. When and where do we expect our leaders to act in this way? The reality is that this type of strong, directional, controlling leadership is not something we want to see in our sector. The personalities and style of people who direct and dictate often lead to internal conflict and poor governance of their charities. As leaders, we are expected to empower others and not get in the way of their decision-making. Above all, we must never take personal control and simply order that things be done the way we think they should be.

Being the right kind of leader is something we worry about a lot in our sector. To be a successful chief executive you need to learn to lead in the right way. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has produced a list of the qualities that leaders will need to develop. It says that as a charity leader in the 2020s you will be able to:

- Maximise your ability to be an effective leader in your organisation and the sector;

- Be entrepreneurial and digitally empowered;

- Be open and transparent;

- Recognise that the journey is as important as the destination;

- Listen more attentively to contrasting opinions;

- Negotiate more successfully with others;

- Encourage responsibility in every aspect of their work; 

- Take steps to build the capacities of others.

Many of these goals are about helping others, not about taking control yourself. We charity leaders are definitely not encouraged to use any actual or perceived power we might have, but in my time as a charity chief executive I learned that there are occasions where your staff desperately want you to take control. They look to you as "the boss" to simply get on and sort out a crisis or other problem. This might be an internal staffing problem or an external threat, but it doesn’t matter: there are times when leaders need to sense the team’s desire for someone to take charge, to make clear, unambiguous decisions and to make life easier. In such cases leaders need to replace the words "what do you think we should do", with "here’s what you need to do".

Mark Flannagan (@MarkFlann) is an independent consultant and commentator, and a former charity chief executive

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