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Responding to the Julia Unwin challenge: Wise and generous leadership will save us!

Blog written by Shaks Ghosh and Jessica Taplin

At a recent Clore Social CEO Masterclass, Julia Unwin gave us a sneak preview of her report into Civil Society and challenged us to rethink our social leadership model.

Julia painted a dark picture: social security in crisis, economic restructuring, challenges to managerialism and blurring boundaries between sectors, increasing pressure on places from localism and social fragmentation. We face a growing fear of polarisation of generations, both economic and cultural, environmental pressures, global volatility and the increase in nationalism, rising numbers of displaced people and geopolitical strife. Most significant, as Julia states, is the shift in focus from We to Me.

Cripes, that’s rather full on. In response, we know that our task as social leaders is to maintain and strengthen Civil Society by upskilling ourselves to navigate the next decade.

Our sector has shifted, professionalised and with it has come a reliance on structure, staff, institutions and funding. Whilst austerity might be “over” according to the powers that be, we know that the heady days of government largess from the noughties are not returning. Many organisations that were reliant on largess are already accelerating towards oblivion. Many others plough on from funded project to project, jumping through funder shaped hoops which might not run true to their own organisational mission.

So what resource do we have to continue our vital role in civil society? We have the resource that our sector has always relied on: people. People who never fail to surprise us by what they can achieve.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has. - Margaret Meade

To social leaders everywhere our message is this: you have huge, incredible un-tapped resources, and that is your people. Great, inspirational, genuine, caring, committed, compassionate people – change makers.

And the best leaders amongst us will be able to unleash them for social good. People will follow and go to incredible lengths for authentic leaders and leaders they love. To do this we must rethink our leadership, growing the next generation of change-makers, sharing our wisdom and skills. For many of us it means the re-alignment to those virtues that lie at the core of what the social sector is about - kindness, bravery and honesty. In his book The Road to Character, David Brooks talks about shifting from a focus on external success to internal value.

Amongst the people who we must inspire are trustees and directors. Many charities still struggle with unskilled and egocentric trustee boards. Being a Trustee should be an act of humble leadership - to genuinely help and add wisdom, working alongside and in a critical friend way to the executive team. We must help trustees, no matter what their day job, to learn the skills of listening, empowering and appropriately challenging the Executive team in their own leadership role. Julia sums it up well: it’s about Power, Accountability, Connection, Trust.

Julia sums it up well: it’s about Power, Accountability, Connection, Trust.

Modern leadership, getting the best from teams, resources and networks, is about rethinking the power dynamic. To lead is to have power, a privilege to be cherished. Leaders today need to find smart ways of sharing power to shift imbalances. We know that leaders must grow leaders, not monopolise their power.

As senior leaders we know that experience does count, but it doesn’t automatically mean we are right. So the trick is to encourage shared accountability, building relationships based on dialogue and feedback. There is little room for rigidity in a service based world, and Julia reminds us that we exist to serve. User needs are paramount, and to meet the constant evolution of need and circumstance, we need to be more adaptive, embrace the unknown, admit mistakes and adapt how we do things. We are all constantly learning and improving, as leaders we must encourage this in ourselves.

Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm. - Winston Churchill

Leadership is fundamentally a relational activity. How many of us really meet all people as equals, recognising their complexity, frailty and value. We know that dispersed and egalitarian forms of leadership help build better solutions and approaches, yet we lack the courage to adopt these forms of leadership. During their study, Clore Social Fellows regularly ask each other a powerful question: what would you do if you were ten times braver? Social leaders are in their roles to make social change or to give social service. Both require bravery beyond belief and deep wells of resourcefulness and resilience.

Today’s leadership requires us to care for ourselves and be kinder others. The dog-eat-dog world many leaders live in is no good for our sector. Do we have the courage to change and adopt more generous and collaborative approaches?

To be clear, many social sector leaders have these qualities and more. These last years of austerity have seen many social sector leaders heroically steering ships that are already over the edge, parachutes and kites all desperately launched to try and slow the fall. They are feisty yet kind, resilient, generous. We can learn from them.

So to Julia’s challenge to find new models of leadership for the stormy waters ahead, we say: “I am not afraid of storms for I am learning to sail my ship”. Louisa May Alcott

I am not afraid of storms for I am learning to sail my ship - Louisa May Alcott
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