Between 1997 and 2007 I served as chief executive of Crisis, one of the UK’s national treasures. I jumped into the role as a housing policy wonk, learned on the job, barely had time to think, and saw training and development as a self-indulgence and waste of precious resources. If only I had known then what I know now.
The past five years as chief executive of Clore Social Leadership has been the most profound learning journey: I’ve thought deeply about leadership, read all I can on it, and walked the walk with thousands of social leaders.
This has shown me that the simple set of skills and behaviours we call ‘leadership development’ can transform your practice, boost your wellbeing and multiply your impact. It can take only a few weeks to learn, and lasts a lifetime. Yet only a fraction of our leaders make time to learn and reflect on these skills.
There are signs that 2021 might be a turning point. Surprisingly, 2020 brought increased demand for development and leadership learning, and social leaders are aware that the world will demand more of them going forward.
They have seen leaders struggling with the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, and felt the need to do better. And they have understood that generous and collaborative leadership will see us through the darkness ahead.
Our team has been talking to leaders about the skills and behaviours the sector will need to invest in ‘on the other side’. We expected to hear about strategy, digital and financial needs. In reality, they responded quite differently.
People were concerned about connection: and social leaders, especially in small organisations, understand that complexity requires collective action. In the face of pandemics or social inequality, ‘I’ am small but ‘we’ are strong.
Leaders also responded to the crisis by showing generosity and engaging in peer-to-peer learning. With resources scarce, affordability and accessibility are more important than ever. Leaders need to learn from their peers, and need the ‘how to’ knowledge that they can only learn from practitioners. It seems they want to build a kinder and more connected world.
Finally, there is a pressing need for resilience. Social leaders feel they have nowhere to go for support, ideas or best practice. This isolation is at best, tragic; at worst, it is dangerous. Agility, relationships, world views and seeing possibility are skills best learned from colleagues.
So, here’s the conundrum. There are at least a million social leaders in the UK in whose skills and learning no one can afford to invest. Yet we know we could raise the tide if they had more support and opportunities for growth. If they could be just 10 per cent more ‘productive’, the social rewards would be enormous. So how can we achieve this in a time when resources are shrinking and demand is rising?
We must build a peer learning movement. The top insight from leaders who have been through our programmes is that they learn more from each other than formal tuition. Peer-to-peer connections spark the neurons that lead to behaviour change and enhanced leadership.
If leaders can grow leadership and confidence in others, we move into a virtuous learning spiral, where leadership growth and behaviours are passed on, and received, for free.
We could all benefit from increasing our leadership conversations: every day, every hour. To have dialogues in the workplace, on Zoom and social media. To share, advise, ask for help.
When it comes to the proliferation of leadership ideas and thinking, digital is our friend: and so Clore Social will soon launch a community platform to connect social leaders, assist with peer learning, enable discourse and debate, and build networks.
By harnessing the power of peer connection, we can ensure that we can lead through this crisis with foresight, strengthen our organisations and communities, and work collectively toward social change.
Shaks Ghosh is chief executive of Clore Social Leadership, a charity that supports leadership development in the social sector