Inspired by a vision, leading with integrity
There has been much debate over the years about what makes a good leader. If you ask people who comes into their head when they think of a good leader you will get the normal suspects, Prime Ministers, well known social reformers, even entrepreneurs. But what makes a good leader?
At NCVO we have been running a subsidised leadership programme, supported by Barclays, for a number of years. This week we invited our alumni from the past five years to join us for the day. The aim of the event was to inspire leaders in our sector and to help them carry on their leadership journey - the theme was "Leading in Difficult Times".
We invited Emma-Jane Cross, CEO of Beatbullying, as a our keynote speaker and Helen Hodson, Chair of Rural Needs Initiaitve, as a past participant to give her views on the course and how it helped her in her leadership journey.
The theme that I recognised coming through from the discussions, speakers and feedback was the importance of values, integrity and ultimately, people in leading successfully. To be a leader you need followers - after all you might manage systems but you lead people. The ability to lead depends a lot on how you interact with people in your team, those above you, those in partner organisations, the media, funders, commissioners etc.
Sir Bob Kerslake, who replaced Sir Gus O'Donnell as head of the civil service two years ago, once said that the most important trait of leadership is self-awareness and building a strong team:
"The most important trait of leadership is being self-aware, and recognising what your own strengths and weaknesses are. You can't necessarily alter them, but you can build up a team around you that can compensate for your weaknesses and complement your strengths."
Lessons on leadership
There are a few lessons that I took from the leadership alumni event and Sir Bob's quote. The most important one, as I see it, is the need for leaders to constantly develop. To understand that the journey is never finished. To do this, leaders need to really understand themselves. This means almost constant reflection on how they act, how they are seen, communicate, what they achieve and how they achieve it. This allows identification of, as Sir Bob says, their strengths and weaknesses.
For example, I know that I am not the most creative person in the world but I really value creativity in others because I recognise my weakness. Knowing that about myself means that I am always on the lookout for more creative people to bounce ideas off. Katherine-William Powlett, who leads on Innovation for NCVO, is a prime example. Katherine sees things in a completely new way, she takes nothing as certain and inspires a new approach which I find fascinating and it really makes me step outside of my little structured mind with my lists and bullet points.
A high level of self-awareness allows you to recognise and remove barriers to successful leadership. One way to address barriers is to fill your team with people with a diverse range of skills and expertise. A leader might not see change coming, they are not omnipotent. However, build up a strong team and you have flexibility. If you do not see change coming then your team will and they are more likely to have the skills to deal with it. I think that the key to this is to have a strategic approach, to understand what you need in a team and to take time to recognise and value people's contributions and skills.
As a sector, we also need to be building leadership skills early in people's careers and we need to truly value those skills. Emma-Jane spoke at the alumni session about the brain drain from the third sector as the cuts hit. We lost many fantastic and inspiring leaders and there were few arenas that enabled that wisdom to be captured and shared so it was lost, possibly forever.
If we want to effect social change we need to have strong leaders - let us not take our leadership skills or our leaders for granted. As Richard Doughty, who chairs the Leadership 20:20 Commission, said at the launch of Commission's recommendations on inspiring leadership in the sector, said:
“Ensuring our sector has sustainable and resilient leadership is a challenge to every CEO, Chair and Board - but also a shared responsibility for our sector’s partners, funders and Government. Developing new opportunities and supporting our emerging leaders is a challenge that should focus the mind of everyone who benefits from the contribution civil society makes.”
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