Martyn Drake: Leaders need to start doing less

Stop trying to do everything you can do and start focusing on those things that only you can do, while developing those around you to do everything else

Back in March, I wrote a column about the unprecedented pressure on charities and their leaders, and my thanks to everyone who got in touch to share their stories. 

It seems many of the themes resonated, including post-pandemic exhaustion, staff shortages, cost pressures and escalating need. 

But the two biggest concerns were around mental health and the spiralling cost of living – notably the latter’s potential impact on everything from fundraising and volunteering to costs and salaries, to family and community resilience and, ultimately, on physical and mental health. 

Both concerns have been validated by a growing body of research and predictions from organisations such as NPC and Pro Bono Economics

The question remains, though – in the face of such a storm, how do charity leaders rebuild and sustain themselves and their organisations, and their capacity to provide what people need from them?

What do leaders need to start doing differently, if they and their organisations are to thrive through this ongoing maelstrom?

That’s the question I’ve been exploring with CEOs from across the sector, and the surprising answer is: they need to start doing less. 

Specifically, they need to stop trying to do everything they can do, and start focusing on those things that only they can do, while developing those around them to do everything else.

This single resolution has huge benefits, not least for the organisation’s ability to adapt to change. 

For charities to be able to respond rapidly at local level, decisions need to become increasingly devolved and individuals increasingly empowered and enabled by their leaders. This is a much higher level of distributed leadership than most organisations are used to. 

To gauge your own level of leadership distribution, just ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Can your team run the day-to-day operation without you for extended periods?
  2. Can they grow your organisation or department and deliver its strategy without your involvement?
  3. Do they have the confidence, capability and authority to refine and evolve the strategy and the plans within it, as circumstances change, without running it all through you?

For those higher levels to exist, your people will need to be able to work seamlessly with each other across the organisation.

They will need strong, supportive relationships with their own teams and peers, and the flexibility to find their own best ways of working together.

And they’ll need to learn to think strategically together, manage and resolve their conflicts, align on priorities and collaborate on new ideas without you having to direct them, step in to massage egos, or deliver the casting vote.  

That might sound like fantasy but, for all that to happen, leaders need only focus on two things: getting and developing the right people, and nurturing an environment and culture within which they can thrive. That’s it. 

There are a million other things leaders can do within their organisations, but get those two fundamental things right and pretty much everything else, from strategy and storytelling, to governance and general management, can increasingly be delegated to others.

And that’s important, because future leaders will need to be far less concerned with what’s happening inside their organisation, and far more focused on what’s happening outside it: working holistically and systemically, building mission-led and asset-based partnerships and coalitions, and sensing, influencing and shaping the environment within which their organisation will need to work.

Those who turn their attention inward and hoard authority will probably not survive this storm.

And they certainly won’t provide the collaborative, agile leadership that will be essential for the sector to meet that ever-increasing need. 

This is a big shift for most chief executives, and requires an even bigger shift from many of their teams.

There are barriers that will need to be overcome, challenges that will need to be solved, and they will be different for every organisation. 

But over the past few months I’ve been working with various teams to help them through these changes, and I’ll share some of the practices and principles next month.

One thing that has become clear, though, from all my CEO conversations, is the uniform recognition that this has to be the direction of travel for sustainable charity leadership.

For anyone in the sector who is interested, I’m hosting a free online seminar on 14 June about this very subject. Full details are available here

Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting

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