It may sound counterintuitive to criticise a word like ‘care’ as it is difficult to envisage any negative connotations. Many, many charities and social sector organisations are involved in the provision of ‘care’ and I have no doubt that the staff of those organisation genuinely want the best for the people with whom they work. But I would question whether it is enough for effective social leaders to want to offer care to people, and if instead we should be striving to ensure that those people no longer need to be cared for by an organisation.
The very notion of professionally ‘caring’ for someone is inherently limiting - it can eliminate hope and aspirations. A courageous social leader should cast aside their professional ego and strive to make their services redundant; this can’t be done through administering care but by encouraging an organisational culture of ambition and adventure, of mitigated risk taking.
This approach comes with a certain amount of risk and we need to acknowledge that there are limits on an individual’s abilities. It is about giving people the same opportunities to flourish by being equitable, it is not about treating everyone the same: different people have different needs and need different types of support to have similar opportunities. In a time where virtuosity is seen as the minimum competency needed to engage in many activities, we must lead in a way that acknowledges that most activities have implicit value.
The trope of ‘social mobility’ suggests that there is a preferred position in society that we should all aspire to and that we can only reach it if we work hard enough. I challenge the notion that reaching for ‘social perfection’ is acceptable as a cultural norm and I suggest that there is a place for everyone in society to be themselves, and not be compelled to be reinvented as a social migrant. The flipside of social mobility is the implication that if someone is incapable of achieving the hallowed goal of being socially mobile, the best society can offer them is ‘care’: they offer no contribution to the greater good so all we can do is remove as much discomfort from their lives as possible.
I appreciate that challenging the notion of social mobility is an unfashionable stance as it criticises the notion of care. I am a proud, successful working class person. I don’t want to abandon my heritage to be seen as a success, and neither do I want to promote a binary offer of social mobility to the people with whom I work. As a social leader, I feel that supporting people to define their own criteria for a successful life takes significant courage, and it requires an approach that rejects the professional in favour of the human.
In my provocation piece, I offer ten ways in which social leaders can adopt this approach; it embraces the human in preference of the professional, and it sees people as having potential rather than problems. This isn’t the easiest approach to adopt as a social leader, but then when was anything worth doing easy?
Stuart Dexter is the CEO of the Daisy Chain Project and a 2017 Clore Social Leadership Fellow. He developed this blog and provocation piece as part of his Fellowship.
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