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Generous leadership

Dawn Austwick is Chief Executive of Big Lottery Fund.

Anyone interested in the role and nature of leadership will not have been short of food for thought lately. The recent referendum debated at length Britain’s role on the world stage – with both sides keen to paint a picture of leadership either within or without the EU. In that debate, we will rarely have seen a more eclectic array of personalities seeking to burnish their own leadership credentials. And both the Conservatives and Labour have engaged in (albeit very different) internal soul-searching about the leadership they need to tackle the post-Brexit era. Theresa May now leads the country – tasked with bringing the country back together and forging a socially just, economically sound, future. A task not without challenges.

But for all this leadership talk, the referendum laid bare the fact that large numbers of people feel disenfranchised and ignored by the powers-that-be. That’s an immediate challenge, and one that civil society has a key role to play in tackling. At the heart of this is giving people and communities a sense of agency over their lives. Here at the Fund, our new strategic framework sets out what sounds like a simple vision: putting people in the lead in shaping their lives and communities. That means people and communities defining their own aspirations, and organisations (including us) supporting them to achieve it. It’s nicely encapsulated by the phrase ‘nothing about us, without us, is for us’. And, in leadership terms that can be quite a challenge to what we are used to.

So what does great leadership look like in a thriving civil society? There’s a conversation starting to emerge around a concept I am calling ‘generous leadership’. John Donne has it in a nutshell:

No man is an island, Entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, A part of the main.

And if I think back to my time as a trustee of conservation charity the Woodland Trust, it absolutely mirrors how we think of biodiversity - 'it's an ecology, stupid!' Everything is inter-linked and ultimately inter-dependent.

I’ve spent quite a lot of my professional career in the cultural sector. Over the last 25 years a pattern of generous leadership has evolved and developed: with national institutions like Tate and the British Museum jointly curating and displaying their collections with regional museums, training and developing curators and conservators of the future. The National Theatre has pioneered co-productions with smaller production companies and regional houses and sees its own box office as a platform for other companies to benefit from. And we have co-funded Battersea Arts Centre's ‘The Agency’ partnership with People’s Palace Projects, based on a model founded in the favelas of Rio to support young people to make entrepreneurial ideas a reality.

Fundamentally, these cultural institutions developed a more acute awareness of their place in a delicate ecosystem. Civil society has no less rich and diverse an ecosystem (the NCVO Almanac is a useful reference point). ‘Generous’ leaders need to think clearly about what they have that they can share with others – be it money, time, or assets. And that shouldn’t be thought of as a simple act of altruism, but as an exercise in mutual benefit.

Take for example, the acquisition of Only Connect by Catch 22. The latter provides strategic support, scale and greater financial security, the former provides a new innovative arm of the business alongside skills and closeness to community. For this to work, the generous leader has to have a burning focus on mission rather than organisational preservation. This might mean supporting other organisations working with a similar mission to thrive rather than pursuing perpetual growth. Or it might mean offering space and time for an emerging leader from outside the organisation to reflect and develop their ideas, as the Catch22 Fellowship programme does. Generous leadership with a focus on mission may also lead a CEO and Board to decide that income growth is not always the path to achieving that mission - a decision EveryChild took under Anna Feuchtwang’s leadership.

Charlie Howard’s MAC-UK initiative goes even further – set up on a ten year basis with the intention of changing the nature of mental health provision for young people, before exiting stage left. And that points to a further characteristic of generous leadership, of being networked with other people working hard for social change. Rather than simply telling a single story, generous leaders seek to be a part of a wider movement and to share in that narrative instead. That’s a lesson that we funders need to particularly reflect on, having traditionally been criticised for thinking in terms of ‘our’ money and what it achieves, rather than the bigger picture for people and communities: sometimes attribution can get in the way of the best solution. The Early Action Funders Alliance is an example of positive steps in the right direction, bringing together a cluster of UK funders to explore and test ways of preventing problems from occurring rather than simply coping with the consequences.

And so we return to ‘nothing about us, without us, is for us’. As generous leaders, we must renew our championing of the grassroots, staying focused on our mission and how best we can facilitate the work of those we support – the people in the lead. We must be listeners and collaborators with our colleagues in the sector, recognising where and how we can add value. And, as generous leaders, we must welcome the opportunity to challenge our own assumptions of what good leadership looks like, and fully embrace the complexity that will provoke.

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