Asset-based philosophy has an Aristotle-like emphasis on the ‘what’ we should develop in order to build a ‘good life’. I believe doing more than react to or prevent disadvantage is something that can help invigorate our social leadership.
‘Asset-based’ means embracing capability and shifting the focus from what is lacking to what is working – from Strengths-based Practice and Asset-Based Community Development, to Appreciative Inquiry, the Sustainable Livelihoods Framework and Advantaged Thinking. These approaches range from working with an individual’s strengths, to mobilising resources within a community, to maximising opportunities for systemic change. What unites them as ‘asset-based’ is a belief in relational solutions and a passion for looking beyond meeting problems towards nurturing possibilities.
I help organisations apply asset-based innovations, including providing advice for The Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Youth Fund. Since asset-based theory is not about one-size-fits-all, I have worked with Paul Hamlyn Foundation to introduce a glossary of ‘where’ different asset-based approaches are likely to thrive. These translate into ‘assetspots’ that highlight the practice of what and how organisations deliver, alongside the influence organisations apply to wider policies and perceptions. Exploring them, four leadership challenges emerge.
The first challenge is in growing ‘identity-positive’ organisations. In particular, this refers to what and how vision and values that invest in enabling good, and how they are communicated. It means more, however, than articulating an inspirational vision for social transformation. Leadership must also define and share the ethos by which transformation actually happens. Who you are, and what you say, increasingly matters.
The second challenge is being open to work ‘with-people’. This means empathetic leadership, sensitive to how far the people an organisation supports are involved across governance, decision making and service design, as well as in delivery. People-powered organisations must have leaders who trust people as citizens of change – not just clients or customers. Openness requires an equalising relationship.
The third challenge is in the operational and strategic ‘know-how’ to optimise the various processes and programmes that nurture assets. In other words, leaders who understand the significance of building purposeful culture and technology, from staff performance systems to project logic models. Organisations that continue to ‘cope’ with management and delivery styles that do not flourish skills and resources will struggle to sustain asset-based endeavours longer term.
The fourth challenge is in determining what impact means. It can never be enough to capture outputs and outcomes required by contracts, if they do not match the mission we believe in or the complex narrative of people’s lived experience. Equally, we cannot be satisfied to evidence what we do just to attract more funding, if we do not also learn from what happens in order to evolve our offer. Treasuring thoughtful measurement and practical insight defines our capacity for progress.
Exploring these challenges through the Clore Social Leaders’ Capabilities Framework, the ‘generous collaborator’ stands out to me as an underrated capability to recognise assets in each other and to harness them collectively. When it comes to good social change, we best lead assets together.
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