Leadership development is no silver bullet for the sector, says academic

James Rees of the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership, says leadership initiatives are fine, but there is no magical solution to the sector's ills

James Rees
James Rees

The voluntary sector should be wary of regarding leadership development as a "silver bullet" for its current problems, an academic has warned.

James Rees, a senior research fellow and director of the Open University Business School's Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership, said he welcomed the growth of leadership initiatives.

But he said the term "leadership" often meant "different things to different people" and urged caution in treating it as a magical solution.

Speaking at an event organised by the Third Sector Research Centre in Birmingham last week, Rees told delegates that to some people leadership was about how an organisation is led, but to others it was more about management development or governance.

This made it difficult to define and pin down, he added.

Rees suggested leadership development had become fashionable because it was seen as a "cheap and achievable" response to uncertain times.

"My sense is that leadership is seen as a silver bullet for the sector," he said.

But he added that most organisations had highly specific needs and it therefore wasn't clear what the plethora of opportunities could do for the sector as a whole.

One of the biggest challenges facing leadership course providers, Rees said, was "reaching those who need it most".

He cited the voluntary sector leadership course run by the centre where he works as an example.

"We've been trying to reach smaller organisations, yet the people who come to us are often from larger, more networked organisations," he said.

Rees defined leadership as "purposeful interventions" made by individuals or groups of people, but said that many charities still thought about it in hierarchical terms.

He said this might explain the relatively low opinion charity staff held of management compared with other sectors in surveys carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

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