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Talking Leadership - how generous leadership holds the key to unlocking potential for leadership development

Blog by Chris Gurney, former Head of Strategy and Research and Experienced Leader Clore Social Fellow

This week sees the launch of Talking Leadership, a new report of qualitative research into leadership development in the social sector. For the research, we interviewed 58 chief executives and senior leaders about leadership development - and I was fortunate to talk to 45 of them. It was a real privilege to spend time with such a wide range of social leaders and I am immensely grateful to those who joined us for the conversations and whose ideas enabled us to create this report.

In particular, I was struck by how those facing the demands of executive and senior leadership were generous in making the time to talk about leadership development. Several expressed a commitment to leadership development that went beyond their organisations and spoke about a responsibility for the wider sector. Such generosity towards others was deeply affirming - and a stark contrast to depictions of the sector as downtrodden, under pressure and lacking capacity to improve.

Such generosity towards others was deeply affirming - and a stark contrast to depictions of the sector as lacking capacity to improve.

We gained a tremendous amount of insight into this fascinating topic which Shaks Ghosh summarises here. Three additional reflections emerged for me from these conversations. These relate to understanding, impact and collaboration.

Our conversations highlighted diverse understandings of leadership and leadership development. Too often our understanding of leadership development is something done in externally (or internally) provided courses. Such an understanding significantly limits our ability to create opportunities to learn about and experiment with new leadership behaviours in our daily lives. Research on adult learning and development points to the importance of frequent and regular ‘micro-experiments’ for developing and embedding new habits and behaviours. Whilst external courses have an important role to play in improving leadership behaviours, these micro-experiments must also be pursued for learning to be developed and embedded. For us to really make a difference to improving our own leadership, and that of others, we all need to identify and harness such daily opportunities for development.

Our discussions about leadership identified a sense of its value, to individuals, organisations and wider society. At the same time, they also surfaced concerns that these benefits are not well understood or communicated at present. A review of publicly available information from leadership development providers indicates a weakness in terms of the evidence relating to the effects it has for its intended beneficiaries. And practice lags behind that from the private, education and healthcare sectors. Our interviewees discussed a small number of highly regarded leadership development providers, who attract participants largely by word of mouth. Such strong personal recommendations suggest that something must be going right in terms of the quality of provision. However, the limited availability of evidence of impact makes it harder for those seeking to make the case for investment in leadership development (whether to their line manager, Trustees or to a funder). If we are going to create more opportunities for leadership development, particularly paid for programmes, then providers need to be at the forefront of building and communicating the evidence base for impact.

This is work that providers can do together. And this points to my final reflection about the importance of collaboration. Responsibility for leadership development is diffuse and sits with many stakeholders within the system (e.g. individuals, their bosses, the leaders of their organisations, funders etc.). In this complexity, there is no shared understanding of the roles and responsibilities for leadership development.

The opportunity is there for a sector-wide movement to create innovative, multi-stakeholder leadership development solutions.

Our conversations also surfaced insight about untapped potential within the system and opportunities for improving leadership development that can only be harnessed by working collaboratively. The work of creating system-wide alignment and of harnessing this potential is beyond the scope of any one organisation working in isolation. But the opportunity is there for a sector-wide movement to create innovative, multi-stakeholder leadership development solutions. This will rely on organisations working together to mobilise cross-sector responses - and it will require generosity from leaders across the sector to engage with and contribute to what emerges.

This points to a tension that kept surfacing in the conversations: the sector needs more generous leadership to improve leadership development. At the same time, it needs better leadership development to support more generous leadership.

It is exciting to see that Clore Social will be kicking off an ‘innovation lab’ to explore these issues over the coming months. Creating the space where evidence on leadership development can be brought together with voices from across the sector to design and test new solutions will be of tremendous benefit to the sector. Clore Social can play a vital role in facilitating system-wide challenge and to help mobilise the generosity of others to create the leadership our sector needs. I am delighted to have played a role in kick-starting the debate through this report.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Download the report here

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