Better Way leadership

In November and December 2017, our London cells each talked about how to develop a leadership style that would help deliver a Better Way.  This is a summary of the main points, with notes of the individual discussions also available below.

The problem

A command and control model of leadership is deeply culturally embedded in Britain, including in the public and social sectors.  Leaders are expected to focus on the management of their agencies and on the delivery of specified outputs and outcomes, treating their organisations like industrial production units, rather than acting as change agents.  CEOs feel under pressure to conform to (gendered) stereotypes and adopt behaviours that are neither natural nor effective.  Competition between leaders, rather than collaboration, is ingrained. 

However, many of the issues facing society cannot be solved by a single agency, or even by a number of organisations working together.  There are  many factors affecting health and well-being, for example.  A complex system of influences and organisations are important and individuals and communities are critical actors.

The social sector is also not exercising a sufficiently strong thought leadership role in society, tending to comment on the agendas set by others in order to seek marginal changes rather than pointing out fundamental problems in the system and arguing for paradigm shifts.  It tends to talk politics, rather than about what really matters to people.

What is needed is a bigger scale of ambition and more collaboration and shared leadership.

Shared leadership is essential to solve complex issues

Shared leadership is not something simply exercised by people at the top of organisations.  It is about exercising influence and happens when others choose to follow you, not because of a job title.  This is not about becoming a ‘saviour’ or a ‘guru’ but about empowering others to become leaders too.

This kind of leadership is exercised in collaboration and demonstrates the generous qualities which can be summarised as ‘love’.  Qualities of respect, kindness, generosity, nurturing, enabling and empowering are all important.  Such leadership is more about demonstrating the right behaviour and values than setting specific goals from on high.  In one organisation, for example, everyone is encouraged to exercise ‘nine habits’ which include hope and love and to attend workshops with a mix of people at different levels of the organisation to explore how to put these qualities into practice.

The evidence points to shared leadership being far more effective than conventional models in relation to so-called complex issues, as opposed to ‘complicated’ and ‘simple’ ones. These distinctions are drawn from science, which distinguishes between systems that may be complicated, such as computers,  but are man-made and systems that are so complex that we will probably never fully understand them, such as the human brain or a rain forest.  Command and control forms of leadership have their place in relation to simple and even complicated problems and this is an important message. Any organisation is likely to face a mix but in complex situations, leadership is about getting the conditions right for everyone involved to be able to work with complexity. This is achieved, for example, through the creation of networks within and across organisations, and showing leadership by demonstrating core values rather than giving instructions or setting precise goals. It is recognised that the final outcome may be unknowable when the work starts.

Obstacles to shared leadership

Shared leadership is not prevalent and creating it is challenging:

  • Lip-service is often given to shared leadership but change will not happen unless it is shown that it works and will be recognised and rewarded.
  • Network-orientated leaders often find it hard to access circles of power and for their voices to be heard. 
  • The versions of shared leadership tried out in the collectives of the 1970s and 80s were often  chaotic and often led to factional dominance. 
  • Community development, including community organising, is intended to grow bottom-up leadership but there is a danger that citizens themselves end up adopting command and control leadership models. 
  • Often people do not see themselves as leaders and do not recognise the power and resources available to them.  They lack self-efficacy.

As well as making the case for shared leadership, we need to have a better sense of what it means in practice and how best to embed and promote it.

Context matters, and culture and systems are important too

Better Way members recognised that leadership does not work in isolation. Culture and systems are important too.  Indeed one member had come to the conclusion that it is systems change that brings real change, not individual leaders.  The Sheffield Microsystem Coaching Academy, for example, trains coaches to work in the health service to redesign services, involving patients in the process.  A RSA report identified three forms of power important to leadership – personal agency; the power of shared values and norms; and the hierarchical power of expertise.

Context matters too.  What might work in a start up industry would not work in the culture of the public sector.

Some issues to explore further

  • What are the leadership behaviours and practices that we want to promote and how can we best articulate and embed them.
  • How can we convince others that a change is needed and would work?  Can we deploy the complex/complicated/simple issue paradigm to persuade more leaders to adopt this thinking?
  • How can we build more self-efficacy and belief in those who do not see themselves as leaders?
  • How can we encourage greater thought leadership in the general media around the Better Way principles?


Notes of the discussion within individual cells:

Founding cell, 15 November 2017

2nd London cell, 29 November 2017

3rd London cell, 4 December 2017

4th London cell, 13 December 2017