Opinion: Self-awareness will unlock the social economy

A couple of weeks ago, the School for Social Entrepreneurs published a report called Leadership in the Social Economy. It looked at what makes people successful social entrepreneurs.

Julia Neuberger
Julia Neuberger

Several key characteristics emerged out of the 12 case studies. Among them were drive, stamina, conviction and, rather more surprisingly, acute self-awareness. That last characteristic enabled the individuals in question to deal with other people - whoever they were - at a completely authentic level, and gave them a remarkable capacity for enthusing others. But it is also clear that those individuals were not all born leaders or social entrepreneurs. Most had been 'followers' at some point, and had learned by watching others.

Each had a strong desire to generate a vibrant working environment, and liked to sense his or her whole organisation humming - working hard, but happily. For that, the work itself had to be valuable and have meaning, and the working environment had to give meaning too. This adds weight to the argument that the environment in which you work makes a huge difference to your sense of self.

Much of what the authors discovered is unsurprising and is well corroborated by research in the commercial sector on leadership. Factors such as original and speculative thinking, making connections and having a strong sense of purpose in life are fairly standard attributes identified in the leadership literature. But what is quite different, and should inspire hard thought on the part of those wanting to energise social entrepreneurs, is the acute self-awareness.

People have wanted to send third sector leaders away to do MBAs at universities. But the key message of this research is that an MBA is not the thing most necessary to make a social entrepreneur. Some of the characteristics found in all the social entrepreneurs, such as building stamina by looking after yourself better, can be taught - to some extent, at least. But you cannot teach that acute self-awareness in a structured way. All you can do is encourage people to find out for themselves that they need to develop that awareness - and that is done best in some kind of facilitated conversation. Ashoka, the global association of social entrepreneurs, does this well for its leaders, but other sorts of learning sets with a strong reflective and self-reflective model can work too. Social entrepreneurs should not be forced to sit in classrooms being stultified by the wrong kind of course. Instead, they should be encouraged to talk, listen, grow and realise how necessary self-awareness is, and then be coaxed to use that newly found self-awareness to generate drive and passion for their projects.

That strong steer away from MBAs into a different kind of leadership training may turn out to be enormously important. We need to look hard at what we can do to create the kinds of programmes - and the kinds of encouragement - from which social entrepreneurs can learn and grow. To do anything else would be perverse in the extreme.

Julia Neuberger is a Liberal Democrat peer and chair of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering.

And while we're on the subject ...

- Founded in 1997 by the late Lord Young of Dartington, the School for Social Entrepreneurs runs practical learning programmes to enable people to use their entrepreneurial abilities more fully for social benefit. More than 300 fellows have completed programmes at the school's regional offices in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

- Leadership in the Social Economy was written by Fiona Edwards-Stuart and Charlotte Chambers, chair of the SSE. It says that without self-awareness, positive characteristics such as focus, drive and interpersonal skills "become flaws that damage the person and the organisation and leave supporters and staff feeling manipulated".

- Ashoka describes itself as "the global association of the world's leading social entrepreneurs". With offices worldwide, it aims to develop "models for collaboration and design infrastructure to advance the field of social entrepreneurship and the citizen sector". It provides Ashoka fellows with stipends and professional support.

- MBAs for social entrepreneurs were pioneered in the US, where they emerged out of courses designed to prepare non-profit-sector managers. IESE Business School in Spain claims to have set up the first social enterprise MBA in Europe. The first such course in the UK was introduced by Oxford University's Said Business School.

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