Cathy Pharoah: The diversity of the sector means we need a range of leadership styles

In this transitional period for charities the leadership model should not be one-size-fits-all, says our columnist

Cathy Pharoah
Cathy Pharoah

The latest annual assessment from the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector places leadership at the centre of tackling its perceived erosion of sector independence. Last week, the joint Charity Finance Group/NPC Impact Leadership conference placed leadership at the heart of the achievement of impact. But is concern about leadership less an indication of any real deficit than an expression of anxiety about current transition, turbulence and threat in the sector?

The panel suggests that the sector's diversity is one reason for a lack of consensus around a government-sector settlement. Herding cats is the other metaphor that comes to mind. But it's important to be aware that diversity also characterises sector leadership. Thousands of how-to's and 10-point guides exhorting you to be a good or even outstanding leader are available, many with pictures of Mandela, Thatcher or Churchill on the front. There's been an explosion in literature on the subject, but the reality is that there is no one-size-fits-all mode for leadership. Practical experience and research all show that different situations call for different kinds of leaders. And the sector is now in a position where its diversity requires different kinds of leadership.

What sort of leader does, for example, a social enterprise require? The very word 'entrepreneurial' indicates an ability to empower others, releasing creative talents through democratic, participative or catalytic approaches, or enabling experimentation through accepting potential risk and failure. It means valuing process as much as the end- point, with the hope that there will be success along the way. Sir Ronald Cohen, chair of the G8 Social Impact Investment Taskforce, recently said the sector required more "high-risk innovative social organisations", suggesting that it is in a "sorry state" because it lacks such leadership.

But if the focus is on the achievement of impact through evidence-based outcomes, this requires different leadership qualities. Influencing staff's daily priorities, changing ways of working, corralling and channelling complex organisational activities towards common outcomes, embedding measurement systems - these require a hands-on, task-oriented approach.

For other organisations, visionary, transformational leadership is what's needed - the kind that sets out inspirational and persuasive visions, key directions for change, an uncompromising commitment to values and ethics. It can emerge informally through social movements, or formally through appointment and election.

As the sector currently moves in its various, and - as the independence panel notes - sometimes conflicting directions around advocacy, service delivery and entrepreneurialism, it inevitably makes conflicting demands of leadership and the qualities required of the leaders it appoints. If there is a deficit to be tackled in leadership, we need to talk about where it lies.

Cathy Pharoah is professor of charity funding at Cass Business School

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