Being invited to speak on leadership at this week’s Merton Voluntary Service Council’s conference on Leadership, Innovation and Partnership has required me to reflect more broadly on leadership, both within and by voluntary and community sector infrastructure bodies.
The obvious point is that, given the uncertainties, challenges and opportunities facing the sector, the need for effective leadership has never been more significant. Such leadership must be robust and focused, requires a level of authenticity such that sector leaders put aside their egos and demands decision-making based consistently on personal and organisational values.
Usually, one hopes, these values will be aligned, and certainly should be. In member organisations, such as Navca and local VCS infrastructure bodies, this clearly means a resolute and unambiguous focus on maximising value for members.
Voluntary and community sector organisations exist to maximise outcomes for beneficiaries, members and communities. And although they should always strive to be exemplar employers, it is worth stating clearly that organisations do not exist for the comfort of or to fulfil the prejudices or personal interests and proclivities of executives and staff. The same applies to trustees, of course.
With this in mind, in visiting, meeting and talking to leaders of local infrastructure bodies – Navca’s members – I am constantly impressed by their focus on the local VCS and their communities. Most recognise that rather than simply taking the route that is easiest for their own organisations or themselves, their leadership role requires them to cajole, support, encourage and challenge the local sector and others.
To avoid becoming irrelevant, these leaders have to listen to, build sustainable relationships with and understand what their members, the local VCS and communities need and want from them. They need to empathise with their members. They must be ready to respond proactively.
What is required is much more than a set of activities. There must be a culture and a mindset that is fixated resolutely on doing what is best for members and communities.
The leaders I have been meeting are, for the most part, natural community leaders themselves. They are speaking up for communities, contributing to place-shaping and partnering with local government leaders, as well as leaders from other sectors, to ensure that the voices of communities and the VCS are heard in every decision-making chamber across their borough or county.
Drawing upon my experience as an experienced chair, and now chair of Navca, I suggest there are 11 key elements to effective leadership.
- Being values and mission-based, the custodian of the mission, guardian of its reputation and setting, promoting and living the culture and ethos of your organisation
- Constantly listening and responding to members, beneficiaries and communities
- Putting mission and members/beneficiaries first, at all times. Leaders and their organisations do not exist and operate for their own convenience and comfort, but solely for the benefit of the charitable purpose
- Empowering and harnessing the full diversity of colleagues, volunteers and staff, with everyone seeing themselves as leaders and role models, and being both encouraged and enabled to do so
- Being strategic and outcome-focused
- Constantly learning, reviewing and revising strategy and approach. Nothing should ever be fixed or set in stone. You should never be complacent or comfortable with consolidation or standing still. You should be willing to go at pace and just "get on with it"
- Being brave and prepared to take hard and sometimes unpopular decisions
- Securing change and outcomes through influence, negotiation, persuasion and brokering, rather than command or intimidation, and being motivational
- Instinctively, being collaborative, wherever this will add value
- Being open, transparent, humble and accountable
- Being excellent and responsible stewards of limited finances and resources.
I accept that the approach to leadership I have outlined is not easy, but it is essential. To be clear, all of the above applies equally to trustees, chief officers and everyone involved in leadership roles across the VCS, without deviation, hesitation or denial.
Fortunately, I have had the privilege of seeing examples of this across the Navca membership. This is precisely why, despite the challenges of austerity, funding and much else, so many local infrastructure organisations have proven resilient and are doing such a remarkable job.
It must follow that there are parallels (and similar expectations and standards) for national VCS body leaders, just as there are parallels in the public and business sectors. So I wish we as a sector aspired with more confidence to show other sectors the way. We do not always have to follow.
I started this piece by referring to the challenges being experienced across the VCS, especially at a local level. Let me end by saying that leaders who do not deliver for the sector locally or nationally are failing the sector and consequently their communities. Such individuals, of course, are not actually leaders and should make way for those within their organisations, or elsewhere, who do wish genuinely to lead.
John Tizard (@johntizard) is an independent strategic adviser and commentator, and chair of Navca