Dame Mary Marsh: Look sideways - Leaders can learn from critical friends in other organisations

Passion, determination and courage are key qualities of social leadership, but to make tough choices maverick creativity is also needed, says our columnist

Dame Mary Marsh
Dame Mary Marsh

In my own leadership journey I have always had what I would call a restless search for improvement. When the first Clore Social fellows were appointed just over a year ago, I was determined that this kind of restless search would inform our approach to their Fellowship Programme. We began by securing a four-year evaluation partnership with The Work Foundation.

To mark the end of the first year, we held a 'collaborative inquiry' event with more than 40 key stakeholders from across the social sector. They included some 2010 and 2011 Clore Social fellows along with representatives of major charities, social organisations, funders and sector-wide bodies. We came together for a day of questions, conversations and sometimes heated debate to explore leadership for social outcomes and impact across the UK.

With the wide diversity of backgrounds and perspectives, it was a good way to learn together about complex issues. It led to a great deal of creativity, with a positive emphasis on solutions and opportunities. While the debate continues online, some key points have emerged.

Passion, determination and courage are key qualities of social leadership, but to make tough choices - including when to stop or step back - confidence, resilience and, perhaps even more, maverick creativity are needed. We do not have the luxury of time to achieve consensus.

With limited resources, charities, social enterprises and community organisations need to get better at sharing and working in clusters and partnerships to bring opportunities for leadership development. A simple exchange of direct experience, short secondments or 'critical friends' across organisations could give leaders out-of-the-box moments for reflection. Those in governance should be included in this too.

There are opportunities for bigger organisations to connect with smaller ones, sharing capacity and experience. And we need to recognise that leadership runs through our activities at all levels, not just at the top; so thinking about how to spread good leadership and build networks across the social sector - not forgetting the private and public sectors - can lead to better sharing of experience and ideas.

Social leadership is not found only in charities, social enterprises and community organisations. In the stark and growing challenges we face, we can share a commitment to build a better world and overcome injustice and disadvantage. By playing together we will find some innovative solutions, which we must share more widely. We will do this better if we collaborate openly and creatively.

Dame Mary Marsh is director of the Clore Social Leadership Programme


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