Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the question of leadership. In my roles on the executive team at the Children’s Society and as a trustee at Refugee Action, we’ve been exploring what we believe to be the traits of a successful leader. This question is particularly crucial at a time when the world is transforming at pace, the issues that concern us are growing in prevalence and complexity, and bold leadership is urgently needed to achieve positive social change.
Of course, there is no one single characteristic or behaviour that defines great leadership. Leaders lead in many different ways, playing to many different strengths and contexts. Yet one trait more than any other does stand out for me: acting bigger than self.
You might recognise this as seeing the bigger picture, encouraging others to succeed, putting the organisation or mission first. Simply put, this is lifting your head above your immediate concerns (whether that be as an individual, team manager, senior executive or organisational leader) to take account of, encourage and enable a wider constituency to succeed. Most importantly, seeking to harness and unlock the potential of those around you, even when this might be at your personal expense.
Thinking, acting, being bigger than self is a trait that we can all practise at every stage of our careers – it’s not dependent on seniority or job title. I always encourage those seeking to progress into senior roles to start with this behaviour in their current day jobs. You should consider how you can contribute to the success of your team, not just achieve your own personal objectives, and how you can play a role outside your team across your wider organisation – contributing your time, voice, energy and ideas to initiatives that advance the overall mission. And beyond your organisation, how you can contribute to our sector progressing – again, through volunteering, sharing, participating.
When I’m looking for leadership potential in my teams, this is the first trait I seek out. Who is prepared to act outside their box, to pitch themselves beyond the narrow constraints of role and function. Who is asking bigger questions about our mission and approach, offering ideas that extend beyond their remits. And how I can offer the permission, space and platform for these leaders to step forward and thrive.
We need more leaders and we need more leadership in our sector. Too often, I fear we are falling short as a result of short-term, insular, protectionist behaviours. I am continually frustrated at the internal rivalries, siloes and tensions that we allow to exist within our organisations. When our missions are so critical, it is an unacceptable indulgence to allow our people to develop their own competing agendas – fundraising v comms v advocacy v services v finance, and so on – when we need everyone gunning for the same goals. Thinking bigger than ourselves, putting the mission above and beyond our local concerns.
This is a challenge to our sector too. How many board and brand egos are barriers to greater impact? How much more social change would we achieve if more organisations were able to constructively collaborate (and, yes, in some cases, merge) in pursuit of shared goals? There are too many weak excuses holding our missions back through a lack of bigger-than-self behaviour.
Yet I feel encouraged by an emerging generation of new leaders who instinctively reach out and offer far more generous leadership. We need to encourage this leadership approach at every level, and ultimately drive our whole sector to act bigger than self. Then we can truly offer the leadership needed to tackle our most urgent social challenges.
Joe Jenkins is director of supporter impact and income at the Children’s Society and a trustee at Refugee Action