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Leadership and the future of our 'civil society'

At Clore Social’s Leaders Now breakfast meeting at the House of St Barnabas this week, we were lucky enough to hear from Julia Unwin, former CEO of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the chair of the upcoming Inquiry into the future of Civil Society, a privately funded piece of research.

She started by reflecting on her work and her views on leadership which were refreshingly down to earth and simple. She used wording from a primary school classroom she had found herself in the previous evening to pull together some ideas.

The five leadership skills that stood out for me were:

  1. Listening, really listening. Giving people ‘exquisite attention’ with a genuine desire to understand what is being said, and be willing to take on board different views to your own, as good leaders have to be great listeners first.
  2. Playing on the well-known saying she shared of the greater lessons she’s learnt is ‘don’t do something, just sit there’. In other words take time to consider and reflect, don’t confuse action with leadership.
  3. Make lots of friends and allies, particularly with people who don’t hold the same views as you. Build bridges for people to cross.
  4. Read broadly and take the pulse of opinions you don’t understand. Take the time to work out why people feel differently to you (then see point 1 above and listen).
  5. Be yourself, your whole self. However there is a caveat to this. To paraphrase she said, ‘this is not talking about all of your domestic troubles or showing every emotion that you have, but ensuring you don’t waste energy hiding who you are.’

I’ve heard the phrase ‘civil society’ many times but never really thought about what it means. For me it conjures up images of Jane Austen characters and a time when you could take it for granted that everyone is tuning into The Archer omnibus.

Since Brexit here in the UK we’ve become a rather ‘uncivil’ society, people are polarised in their views and, speaking personally, I’m not really able to listen to and understand the case for Brexit. I will try harder. In the US President Trump seems oblivious to societal norms let alone capable of basic ‘civility’. I am not sure he will be encouraged to follow my lead.

At the talk, Julia was asked where she was ‘coming from’ in relation to the Inquiry, and she explained that everyone had been asked to ‘list their priors’, and state their biases. What stood out most was her view that society had become too big and is not local enough. That we had become too logical about operational efficiency about hospitals, schools and services, and that people don’t live like this. I was fascinated about the discussion in the room about housing and the elderly care crisis. Where we are now in relation to both is not in any way ‘civil’, but then neither issues are easy to solve unless we start to talk truthfully about them.

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