Martin Edwards: Challenging with tact – the key daily quality of leadership

The best leaders see the potential for transformation everywhere, and know how to ask hard questions kindly

The definition of tact, it is sometimes said, is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.

Taking this a little further, I think the ability to challenge the status quo with tact is the most important daily quality of charity leaders.

We have all seen charities where a charismatic chief executive, bent on breaking new ground or taking on the establishment, ultimately leaves a trail of unhappy people in their wake. Great at storming but poor at forming or norming. 

Then there are the ‘safety first’ appointments: leaders hired because they won’t challenge the board too much or who offer the reassurance of long experience in the charity’s subject matter, but lack a transformational record.           

The best leaders see the potential for transformation everywhere, but will ask hard questions kindly. 

This starts with the very nature of the problem the charity exists to solve.

How do we know that our services are the best solution? Have we truly included the people at the heart of the matter? How can we stop the problem from happening at all?

It means fundamentally challenging limitations. Every charity has them.

Our mission has always been this; we don’t work in that area; we can’t raise that much money. Ask yourselves: why not, and how could we? 

It becomes about learning and embedding: paying special attention to service complaints, examining how disasters happened elsewhere in the sector and ensuring everyone understands the lessons. 

That keeps me awake more than anything else. The more experience I gain, the more I realise you can never say “it could never happen here”. 

Sometimes you must ensure that two totally opposite cultures can co-exist and thrive.

A healthcare charity like ours, for example, needs an ultra-cautious approach to service safety and standards, alongside entrepreneurial risk and innovation in fundraising. 

That means being able to change your style with different teams, while prompting each to develop an understanding of the other.

Constructive challenge is also the key ability of great trustees. Whether applying lived experience, professional background or voluntary empathy, they can never be too cosy with the executive, but must work with and through them. 

I sometimes refer to “shaking the tree” to see what falls off.

It entails asking awkward questions of dedicated staff or volunteers who have more experience of their area than you do; but asking them in such a way that they look forward to finding the answers.

Martin Edwards is chief executive of the children’s hospice Julia’s House


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