Stella Smith: Why is it difficult for us to nurture leaders?

The sector is hardwired to be independent but it can detract from effective leadership, writes our columnist

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

I have long been a supporter of developing leadership in the charity sector. We need people who can focus on strategic issues, champion the cause and inspire the confidence and trust of key stakeholders. So it's great to see the King's Fund, Comic Relief and the Big Lottery Fund getting together to promote the Cascading Leadership programme for health and wellbeing charities and the Big Lottery Fund awarding almost £500,000 to Clore Social Leadership to provide leadership development opportunities in the voluntary sector. I wish them, along with the many other charity leadership initiatives, every success.

I do though wonder why, however, when leadership in the sector has long been a recognised need, the sector finds it so difficult to nurture and support leaders. To some extent, the challenge of implementing leadership skills is in the nature of skills development. If you've ever been on a training course you will know that the post-training enthusiasm is often a short-lived phenomenon and the end-of-course commitments can be very difficult to implement in practice.

But I also think that the unique culture and assumptions of the sector pose particular difficulties for leaders.

As a rule, charity staff are hardwired to be independent. They enjoy challenge, and love to question the official version of events and highlight the flaws in an argument. We take delight in playing devil's advocate and pride ourselves on speaking our minds.

Certainly, there is much to admire in this freethinking, rebellious spirit. However, at times this energy is not focused only on the government or large corporate interests, but also towards those within our organisations who step into leadership roles.

Although we want leaders, we don't necessarily want to be led.

As a result, many charity networks and collaborations become unstuck when there are disagreements about whose logo should be on the proposal or who should make the final presentation. Every year sees the creation of thousands of new charities because founders are convinced that no one is doing quite what they want to do or, if they are, that they can do it better.

Many a charity merger has failed not because those concerned couldn't see the sense in combining the resources and activities of the organisations, but because they couldn't agree on who should be the leader. The widespread assumption that we should always say what we think and fight our corner is detracting from our ability to enable effective leadership.

If it is true that in a democracy people get the leaders they deserve, perhaps the sector needs to reflect on how we go about supporting people with leadership potential. If we feel obliged to throw light on their deficiencies, then the people who tend to step into and hold leadership roles will be those who thrive in that environment: not necessarily those with the best strategic vision, but those with the most tenacity and the thickest skins.

We should never lose our passion for speaking truth to power, but we should also realise when it is misdirected and is adversely affecting our organisations. We need leadership skills programmes, but these alone will not enable effective leadership to happen.

If we are to really recoup our investment in these initiatives, then the sector needs to rethink its assumptions and expectations of leadership. Perhaps more than learning about leadership, we need to learn how and when to follow.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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