Sue Tibballs: Mission-led leaders are bringing radical change

The sector could be witnessing a new wave of leaders, writes our columnist

Sue Tibballs
Sue Tibballs

I recently wrote about the idea of activist leaders. In coining this term, I wanted to make a case that our sector needs more leaders who are willing to be brave, to speak up and to challenge. I argued that this kind of person - today's Sheila McKechnies, if you like - have been pushed out in favour of resource managers. These very capable people have been appointed for their ability to run organisations and generate income, but to what end? And where are the people who are driven by mission?

Last month, my organisation co-hosted a dinner to discuss activist leaders. Twenty charity chief executives were around the table from a diverse range of organisations. This is how the conversation went.

First, the concept of an activist leader was rejected. The group agreed you couldn't have a leader who was just an activist or a campaigner. Good charity chief executives have to be able to run their organisations, to manage resources. You could say this is a baseline. Having a great vision is for naught if you cannot then manage resources to deliver it (I can think of a few charities that have almost gone under because a hubristic chief executive has set it on a bold path it does not have the means to reach).

But the group also agreed that preserving and growing organisations has become too dominant as the key goal of good leadership. As someone neatly put it, leaders have become too focused on securing the money to maintain the model. Rather, we want leaders driven by mission and who are willing to change the model. This, we agreed, nailed it. Too many organisations are looking at their own growth and survival regardless of whether what they are doing is delivering optimal impact - or, indeed, whether their own activities are harming other organisations: behaving as if they were in a market, in fact, in which growth and profit prevail.

Some notable exceptions are emerging. Mark Atkinson, the chief executive of Scope, is taking some brave decisions at the disability charity, led by a clear focus on social change. Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, recently made some very powerful remarks about the need for a different kind of leadership.

It feels like a new wave is building in the sector for some radical change, led by emerging radical leaders. Since the term activist leader didn't make the cut, let's try mission-led leaders. Their manifesto is to be driven by mission, relentlessly; to pursue that mission in entirely new ways; to work in collaboration with others, even on a "white-labelled" basis if necessary; to devolve power, money and other resources down; and to use the power that comes from such huge numbers of members, supporters and service-users to stand up to government and the private sector when necessary.

Being the "third sector" doesn't mean we're third in terms of status, as the former Minister for Civil Society argued in his recent article for this publication. We are the third leg of a stool that falls over without us. Mission-led leaders know this and use it. Not for power for its own sake and not for profit, but for social good. This is why we exist. We've allowed ourselves to be blown off course in recent decades. Mission-led leaders are bringing us back.

Sue Tibballs is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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