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Courage, risk-taking and leadership

Posted on September 1, 2013

Leaders with a tendency to steer clear of risk-taking will have faced a tough time since the financial crisis of 2008. As many organisations in the UK charity sector have faced fundamental challenges of sustainability, an understandable human response is to keep your head down in order to survive. But such times require confident and bold leadership – both to survive and to thrive. Organisations that lead change during downturns will be best placed to benefit when the economy recovers. 

Indeed, in the last few years, I have led my organisation through two mergers and two restructure processes with the express aim of creating a sustainable organisation that can drive greater change than its component predecessors could achieve by themselves.

My experience has been that leaders need a combination of clarity of thinking, decisive leadership and communications skills. 

We need to think clearly and honestly, confront reality head-on and face the facts about the state of the organisation, the sector and long-term funding trends. We need to have tough challenging conversations and must not duck performance issues which can become a drain on teams or the organisation as a whole. 

Communicate, communicate, communicate – we need to communicate openly and frequently, we need to seek feedback and listen, and always keep the lines of communication open.

And when we have decided upon a course of action, we need to move forward. 

This isn’t easy, to put it mildly (which is why every leader needs to counter the isolation of leadership through a personal support infrastructure of coaching, mentoring and/or trusted advisers etc). 

However, I have come to the conclusion that while crisis and challenge requires courageous leadership to successfully lead your organisation through to the next stage, what is harder is to embark on change when things are comfortable. To resist the tendency to settle in and relax, to play it safe.

An external shock such as a financial downturn can, ironically, make it easier to lead change processes that we may have been ducking (remember the Rahm Emanuel maxim about never letting a good crisis go to waste).

UK social sector leaders should be forever self-questioning. Who benefits when we're being courageous? How effective are we being as organisations? How are we best supporting and empowering beneficiaries? How can our organisations make best use of resources to help beneficiaries? 

This requires leaders to be ruthlessly honest and self-critical, no matter how uncomfortable that is. 

This isn’t a call for permanent revolution; more an impatience about finding the most effective ways of achieving positive social change and a ruthless focus on ultimate organisational purpose. As Einstein once famously said, “the important thing is not to stop questioning.” 

The key question is this – “are we making a positive difference?” 

If the answer is yes, then the next question should be how we can improve. If the answer is no, then we need to ask how we can make a positive difference (or to put it differently, would anyone notice if we weren’t here?). 

And if leaders cannot answer that question, they should take a long hard look at the organisation as it stands. Could it make a difference by combining forces with a partner, or should that organisation even exist at all? Now that takes real courage. 

Anand Shukla is a Clore Social Fellow 2012 and is Chief Executive of Family and Childcare Trust, formed from the merger of Daycare Trust and Family and Parenting Institute in January 2013. 

Click here to find out more about Anand.

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Anand Shukla

Anand Shukla

Business focused social leader

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