Peter Stanford: Can we learn instinctive leadership?

Charity chairs should channel engaging and entertaining figureheads like Boris Johnson or Richard Branson; but perhaps without the ego, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

We cherish the view that leaders are born, rather than taught. Perhaps it is something to do with the perceived greyness of the current generation of politicians and business leaders that we are so easily impressed by someone who stands out from the crowd, someone willing to take risks to cut to the heart of the matter. In politics, it's Boris Johnson, soon to head back to the Commons with his eye on Downing Street. In business, it's still Richard Branson. They seem to lead effortlessly and instinctively, although there is inevitably a degree of calculation in it all – for starters, both sport haircuts designed to get them noticed.

And in the third sector? Who are our natural leaders? Which chief executives and chairs stand out effortlessly and instinctively? There are plenty of talented, intelligent and charming people, but none with a truly national profile. Perhaps it comes down to the consensual environment of the charity world – but only up to a point. Charities compete and, behind the mutual back-patting, sinews are strained to gain an advantage, as everywhere in life.

So how can charity chairs be both effective and inspiring leaders? The obvious forum is the trustee meeting. I've been around long enough to have seen these ritualistic gatherings change beyond recognition. Back in the 1980s, they were still quite homely – handing round family photos between agenda items, glorying in the role of dedicated amateurs, there to offer guidance to the chief executive and then slip away.

As the sector has become more professional, however, taking the best from the world of business and commerce, we have also imported their manners and props into the boardroom. There are, for example, a lot of PowerPoint presentations around now. My top tip to any chair would be to avoid hiding behind images on screens and stick to eye contact. We are humans, not calculating machines, and we respond better to a leader who engages and entertains us than to one who resorts to flow charts, graphs and computer projections beamed onto a white wall.

But, of course, the real forum for becoming an effective chair of any organisation is not the boardroom, but what goes on before. There are innumerable, expensive courses that will teach you this, but it is common sense. Prepare the ground, know your facts, build alliances and, most of all, build trust with your fellow trustees. The clue is in the word.

Trustees are busy and have limited time. They want a chair they can trust to make the right decisions and calls at crucial moments, one who knows when to draw on their expertise and when to change course – better still, one who can do it effortlessly and instinctively. And, best of all, they want one who can do it with good grace and good humour – not, perhaps, with the colossal egotism of a Johnson or a Branson, but with enough self-confidence to take a lead and to give one.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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