Martyn Drake: The role of the charity leader is changing

The world is not going back to normal any time soon, so managers are going to have to think, act and, above all, lead differently

Last week, I held one of my regular convenings of chief executives from across the charity sector to talk through the situation in which charity leaders now find themselves, and what comes next.

I think it’s only when you lay it all out that you start to appreciate the scale of the challenge. If this were a film, it would probably come with a warning about upsetting scenes.

We’ve had nearly two years of organisations working in emergency response mode through the pandemic, all in the context of justice, health and social care systems that were already on their knees from a decade of austerity and state retreat. 

Businesses and industries have been decimated. Behaviours and beliefs have changed. Patterns of giving and volunteering have shifted, as have attitudes to authority, work, careers, commuting, communities, campaigns, country and causes. 

Polarisation, populism and authoritarianism are all rising, from crime bills to culture wars, from the spiralling refugee crisis to our own embarrassing response; with post-truth politics fuelling conspiracy theories and the continued erosion of public trust.

Sovereign debt, inequality and inflation have reached levels we’ve not seen in decades, if ever; add to that labour shortages, food poverty, race and gender discrimination, a war in Europe… 

Shall I go on?

And we’ve not even got onto climate change, teenage mental health, post-pandemic trauma, the impending cost-of-living crisis and everything else that’s racing down the track towards us.

The world is not going back to normal any time soon. This “rolling crisis” is here to stay for the foreseeable.

I’m sorry if that sounds like the voice of doom, but we need to be honest about the future because we’re all going to be living and working in it.

To do that, we’re going to have to change; to think, act and, above all, lead differently.

We had no shortage of challenges back in, say, 2018, but the ones we face now are of a different order of magnitude in terms of urgency and impact.

We have to balance the need to make ever-faster, more effective operational decisions, to be agile and work at extreme pace over long periods, with the need to work strategically, collaboratively and thoughtfully on the profound structural and systemic issues that may take decades to address.

We have to bring parties together for genuine collaboration, within systems designed to promote competition; and to protect the health and wellbeing of the people operating and drawing on our services, while at the same time, dissolving the boundaries between our organisation and others.

And we have to inspire people both within and outside of our organisations to join us on a journey, while being transparent and honest that we don’t, and that we may never, have all the answers, and that the sailing may be far from smooth along the way. 

And we have to do all this is on top of everything else we need to do to keep the wheels turning day to day.

In the 10 years I’ve been advising charity leaders, I don’t think I’ve ever met one who wasn’t busy, but the ones I meet now are almost overwhelmed with the panoply of challenges they’re managing. Some are probably just one bad month away from burnout.

Which brings me to the point. 

Our leadership model needs to change – in its style, its focus, its philosophy – if our leaders and their people are going to survive, let alone succeed.

Over the coming months, I’ll be convening more conversations around this topic and sharing my thoughts here. If you’d like to join them, just drop me a line.

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


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