Every leader I have met in the social sector starts out believing they can change the world. But they often find that making a clear, measurable difference isn't easy. By mid-career, few are having quite as much impact as they anticipated.
Some settle for that and focus on having a decent career. Others don't sit back. Instead, they look to take their effectiveness as social sector leaders to another level. But where to go for help? One sees lots of Secrets of Success-type books by business gurus and entrepreneurs, but few explore what makes for greater success as a social leader.
Here is what I learned from the 25 leaders featured in my book, How to Change the World.
1. Lead from behind - The most successful social sector leaders lead from behind as much as from the front. They lead organisations that staff or volunteers join by choice as much as financial necessity. Outside turnaround situations, leadership is more about engagement than direction. You are a convenor, not a commander.
Key leadership behaviours - Talk to more people. Listen more than you talk.
2. Build coalitions - To make things happen, leaders have to build coalitions inside and beyond the organisation. The authority invested in leadership is probably less than in the private sector, where the chief executive has more latitude: strong political skills are needed.
Key leadership behaviours - Plan who you need to deliver change. Think about what aspects will get each group on board.
3. Be authentic - The most successful leaders are genuine people who stay human. It sounds simple, but we all know that the pressures in organisations often mean that leaders sometimes fail in this regard. Authenticity in social sector leadership isn't the same as being liked. It's about people knowing that you stand for particular values and that you uphold them, come what may.
Key behaviours - Make clear what you believe. Prove this through your behaviour.
4. Be ambitious - Leaders who are really changing the world are those with a vast ambition for the mission and how it can be grown. They create a sense of possibility beyond what is currently being achieved. Their skill is doing this without demeaning past achievement.
Key behaviours - Think big; encourage others to do the same. Frame ambition squarely in the language of mission.
5. Think impact - First-order social sector leaders are making their organisations think hard about how to capture and communicate the difference they make (or not). For many organisations - habituated to reporting activity, not results - this is difficult. However, if the world is to be changed, those leading it have to be clear and honest on progress.
Key behaviours - Cold honesty, openness, comfort with laying down a challenge.
6. Create your culture - Top social sector leaders understand that, to make an impact, an organisation has to have the right culture. When coming in new, social leaders often find a culture that gets in the way of progress. "Show me the leader, show me the culture" is a cliche, but one with some truth. The sector's best leaders waste no time setting out the attitudes and behaviour they most value.
Key behaviours - Make people aware of your values and your expectations. Repeat them often and model them yourself.
7. Get your team right - Successful social sector leaders put great store by a top team that is up to the job, even when this means tough choices. They understand that this unit is the key to success or failure. Finding a top team of people who trust and challenge each other, sharing in success or failure together, is essential to success.
Key behaviours - Set the bar high on senior colleagues. Look for alignment or core values, but also a range of perspectives.
8. Coach, don't manage - The very best social sector leaders tend to act like coaches, not bosses. They know that micro-managing is a waste of time. They understand that needing to manage someone closely is the sign of a bigger problem. They use their coaching skills to help people see when it's time to go or take on a new role.
Key behaviours - Think of yourself as an enabler, not a manager. Allow people to manage their own detail.
9. Be visible - The best leaders are rarely found in their offices. They understand that their key role is to engage with people inside and beyond the organisation. This isn't about "turning up" to set-piece events, like a visiting dignitary. It's about making yourself available to people to talk to.
Key behaviours - Get out of your "bubble". Move around the organisation, putting yourself on the line, even if uncomfortable.
10. Look after yourself - Successful social sector leaders work hard, but understand this is a long game, so they tend to look after themselves. On a simple level, this is about time out, the right diet, sleep and exercise. It's also about professional development: creating a good network of peers, subjecting yourself to new learning.
Key behaviours - Better "work hygiene", developing support beyond the organisation.