One of the most striking features of this year’s Acevo Conference was the number of speakers who talked about the importance of resilience in leadership. For me, the standout session of the day involved three charity chief executives courageously describing how they had confronted major challenges in their organisations: serious financial setbacks, a governance crisis and, most movingly, how you cope as a leader when dealing with the terminal illness of a loved one.
Jehangir Malik, chief executive of Muslim Aid, described the personal toll of confronting major organisational challenges, saying: "I thought I was a resilient person, but I never realised how much my resilience would be tested."
This really struck a chord with me. Like many people in the sector, the challenges we face are changing, becoming more complex and demanding. The need to support our beneficiaries increases, funding gets squeezed, public expectations shift and regulatory burdens expand. There have been moments in the past year in which I’ve found my own resilience tested more than I can remember.
So when a sector colleague recently remarked to me that everything was clearly going well in my world based on my social media profile, I had to point out that I didn’t share everything online. And, fantastic as it is, we should never forget that the web enables us to project an edited version of ourselves to the world.
What was powerful about the Acevo session was that it opened up a space in which others could share their own challenges. Vulnerability creates a space for honesty, humility and support. Anyone who has seen Dr Brené Brown’s Ted Talk on vulnerability will know it is fundamental to an empowering leadership style and at the core of creating organisations that can cope with the demands of today and tomorrow.
When I gave a talk at the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland about safeguarding this year, I argued that to foster an organisational culture that keeps people safe from harm leaders have to build resilient cultures. These must enable organisations to "reduce risk and the likelihood of that risk crystallising, as well as learning quickly and constantly improving".
Resilient organisations rely on resilient leaders who role-model these traits. I can’t pretend this is always easy. It’s not something you crack; it’s a constant battle of self-renewal as you face new circumstances (I find it easier to build my own resilience when the sun is shining in June!) and you have to find new ways to enhance your own resilience.
Helping to build character and resilience is bread-and-butter stuff for the Scouts. In fact, it’s one of the key reasons our founder began the movement 112 years ago. The pressures might have changed, but the principle remains: we all need a reserve of grit, determination and resolve to help us bounce back from setbacks and learn from them.
Our Chief Scout, Bear Grylls, describes this skill for life as the "never-give-up spirit", which was so evident from the contributors in that Acevo panel session. One panellist spoke of seeing failure as the first step on the road to success. This is a critical lesson to learn at the earliest possible stages in life and lies at the heart of what the educationalist Carol Dweck calls the "growth mindset" that underpins our ability to succeed and live happy and fulfilling lives.
There are six key ingredients at the core of the Scout programme to foster resilience:
1. Have a go at something new (and be prepared to fail).
2. Learn and pass on a skill.
3. Spend a night away from home.
4. Chat with someone different from you.
5. Achieve something as part of a team.
6. Learn to pick yourself up, start again and bounce back.
I’m guessing that most charity leaders will by now have spent a night away from home, but the rest of the list is as applicable to us as it is to a young person. I would add to these the importance of exercise, diet, sleep, getting outside and having the right back-up team (including coaches, mentors, friends, family and, as was evident at Acevo, the support of colleagues).
As we end 2019 and begin a new year with new resolutions, the Acevo panel was a timely reminder that the focus on our own resilience, mental health and wellbeing is the cornerstone of our ability to lead. This will help us shape amazing charities, which are needed in today’s society more than ever.
Matt Hyde is the chief executive of Scouts