Craig Dearden-Phillips: Dear charity chief execs, leave your egos at the door

Our sector's leaders should be remembered for what they built and the difference they made

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

There is a scene in The Irishman, Martin Scorsese’s latest masterpiece, in which the ageing gangster played by Robert De Niro mentions to his 20-something old carer that he was once the bodyguard of Jimmy Hoffa, the legendary US trade union official.  

In the 1950s and 1960s, Hoffa was one of the most-recognised figures in the US, on a par with the President. He also, according to many accounts, had an ego the size of a planet.

In The Irishman, De Niro’s carer feigns interest with a smile. "You’ve never heard of Jimmy Hoffa, have you?" replies a decrepit De Niro, wistfully.

The point of this story being that even if you’re the best-known person in the country, or a particular sector, in a few years’ time no one will know or care who we are.  

In truth, most of us leave very little behind. 

This is one reason why I rail against the constant puffing up of personal reputations that we see in a sector that ought to have bigger things on its mind.  

One fully expects to see the personality-driven sectors such as music, publishing, design or fashion trying to big up their leading figures through "most influential/admired/best-dressed" surveys, but this is not a great look in our own sector, which is more of a team game. 

For those who want to be remembered long after they have gone, my advice is clear: build something. Hoffa is largely forgotten because he took apart more than he built. But others from his era, such as Neil Armstrong or John Lennon, are remembered for their brilliant contributions, not their fame at the time. 

Ego is rarely something that is reflected upon or discussed in our sector. I want to open that conversation.   

As a younger chief executive, I had a large ego and, on balance, it wasn’t a force for good. It made me reckless at times. I evaluated things from the point of view of how things made me look, not necessarily what was in the best interests of those I was serving. I was a touch too pleased with myself.  

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect our sector's chief executives to be totally above all this. We tend not to be money obsessed and I meet far more kind-hearted leaders in the third sector than in any other. It is also quite human to enjoy the status that comes with leadership of a good cause, but I do see a little too much preening and puffing.  

My larger worry is that it focuses on people, rather than organisations, and on what is said, rather than on what is done.  

Jimmy Hoffa is a million miles away from any third sector leader. But I want at least a few of us to be remembered by the next generation for what we did rather than who we were at the time.  

Craig Dearden-Phillips is executive chair of The Social Group, which runs the Social Club for third sector leaders

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