Leading thought by following your heart not your head, by Kathy Evans

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In a personal story from our collection, 'Insights for A Better Way', Kathy Evans writes about what thought leadership - an aspect of collaborative leadership - means to her.

Leadership, to me, is a title given by followers not by self-proclamation. So when I was asked to share a personal story as a ‘thought-leader’ in challenging competitive market approaches in the voluntary sector it was a great compliment, but telling that story requires a little honest humility. 

It’s been five years since I became CEO of Children England, a membership family of children’s charities with a proud 75 year history of collaborating to change children’s policy and services for the better. I had 22 years’ experience of working in the children’s charity sector so I knew the territory well, but I will openly confess I that had no idea whatsoever how to fulfil the role’s central expectation of becoming a sector leader – a thought-leader - from a ‘cold start’ in my first CEO role.

'A thought leader: "Who me? Seriously?"'

People often talk about ‘imposter syndrome’ as if it’s a low self-esteem issue, or a tendency to be self-deprecating. I disagree entirely. To me ‘imposter syndrome’ is simply a name for the fact that that any human being upon whom a big ‘external’ expectation falls will, in their private inner world where they are just their familiar inner child, be wondering “Who, me? Seriously? But I’m just making it up as I go along!”. I don’t think that’s self-deprecation, just honesty about the human condition.

I thought I’d been asked to step up as CEO because they expected me to find clever answers, clever ideas, that no-one had thought of before. Both my inner child and my grown-up professional self knew I didn’t have them, I just couldn’t see any. This, I thought, must be when everyone finally finds out I don’t know what I’m doing, just like all those ‘exam nightmare’ dreams had foretold! So instead of waiting for that fated imposter-unveiling event to just happen, I decided to head it off at the pass. I spent half a day presenting to our Trustees (all respected and experienced charity CEOs) all of the things I knew I couldn’t do, couldn’t answer and couldn’t solve: I had no answers to solve our funding problems after losing two thirds of our turnover; no clever ideas to unite our divided competitive sector; no cunning plan to end the competitive marketplace or to create a children’s rights revolution.

'Following my conscience, not pretending to have clever leadership plans'

Instead of offering clever answers I asked them for an array of permissions to fail: to make Children England stridently outspoken without waiting for consensus; to spend out their reserves, and to take the charity down in a blaze of campaigning glory if need be, rather than ever seek government money again; and to challenge the competitive contracting marketplace in its entirety, even if meant some of our members might leave our family in disagreement. This was not a clever answer, a smart plan for impact or a business plan for sustainability – it was about doing the right thing even if it put us out of business. It meant following my conscience, rather than pretending to have any clever leadership plans at all.

With their courageous agreement to my potential kamikaze mission for the charity, a mere matter of months later, in May 2014, the Department for Education sneaked out plans to allow the outsourcing of child protection teams, and everything we’d discussed in theory came hurtling at us in reality. Everyone I spoke to felt that private companies competing for the ‘business’ of removing children from their families was a rubicon that should never be crossed, but my members also thought the stable door was swinging off its hinges with the horse long gone; they thought charities protesting against outsourcing now would be futile, and seen as too late, too hypocritical. Deep down, I feared exactly the same.

In the space of a fortnight our ‘Keep profit out of child protection’ campaign achieved its aim and forced Michael Gove to announce a ban on any profit-making firms delivering public child protection functions. It was the quickest wholesale success in my campaigning career, and we had launched it in the cast-iron belief that we would fail. We’d said nothing clever, nothing new, we’d just stated a simple truth that resonated across charities, public services and the general public - they supported in their thousands, and by joining together we achieved a massive national policy change in mere weeks.

That experience set the tone and the template for everything we’ve done since, from collaborating to create our Declaration of Interdependence to our current ambition to redesign the welfare state for the 21st Century. And it’s what led me to become one of the founding members of the Better Way network, in which we’re committed to open-ended dialogue on a better future for public services, while all willing to admit we don’t have any clever answers yet. It feels like the right way forward to me, and if my experience so far is anything to go by, then whatever role or situation you find yourself in, doing what you feel is right, even if you think it’s likely to fail, stands the greatest chance of offering the kind of leadership our sector needs right now.

Kathy Evans became CEO of Children England in April 2013 with a career background spanning counselling and social care practice, policy, research and campaign roles in the voluntary sector – always with a focus on children and young people. Kathy is also a Humanist celebrant for weddings and baby naming.