Building Better Way Leadership, London cell 4: 13 December 2017

In complex environments when we face ‘wicked problems’ a command or management model of leadership is never effective.  We need a leadership approach that recognises that a single agency will not produce desired change, that what is needed is the engagement of different agencies willing to work towards a common goal, and that leaders therefore need the skills necessary to bring many people and agencies together to work for a common cause.  Keith Grint has written about this, making the following distinctions:

Command―critical problems―physical

Management―tame problems―rational

Leadership―wicked problems―emotional

Social sector organisations are usually dealing with ‘wicked’ overlapping problems, where multiple categories can apply in any one instance (eg homelesssness, mental health, offending, family breakdown).  The need is to go ‘above and beyond’ such categories but leaders, whether acting as commissioners or providers, constantly collude in ‘officialising’ social behaviour. They adopt managerial practices which fulfil contracts and give the appearance of outcomes but simply don’t work for people, who end up receiving multiple interventions at many points driven by many leaders, all claiming they have created change, when in fact they probably haven’t.

In certain contexts we do need leaders able to fulfil command and management roles, they do sometimes need to have the influence and authority to get people to do hard things. But we should beware of people who feel too comfortable in such roles!

When we see leadership only in terms of command and management we tend to associate this with physical qualities, tall men in particular, and these forms of leadership tend therefore to become excluding and can have intimidating effects.

The RACI or RASCI models are widely used (implicitly if not explicitly).  This identifies different roles in any change process:

R - Responsible - who is responsible for carrying out the entrusted task?

A - Accountable (also Approver) - who is responsible for the whole task and who is responsible for what has been done?

S - Support - who provides support during the implementation of the activity / process / service?

C - Consulted - who can provide valuable advice or consultation for the task?

I - Informed - who should be informed about the task progress or the decisions in the task?

This approach can be useful for simple managerial processes, where distinct functions can be allocated, but can become problematic when dealing with complexity, where the distinctions are sometimes unhelpful. In many social organisations we expect our senior staff to prioritise managerial tasks, and fail to distinguish between management and leadership, and as a consequence our CEOs spend too much time on the former and not enough on the latter.

Indeed, social sector leaders often present themselves as directive leaders, capable of strong centralised management, in order to win contracts and appeal to funders, even when they know this is not good enough.

So what are the alternative forms of leadership more suited to dealing with complex social change? 

A shift towards shared leadership perhaps? But truly shared leadership is very difficult to achieve. Looking back, those who experienced collectives in the 1970s and 1980s found them ultimately unsatisfactory.  Often chaotic, they would wear people down, and in fact usually created conditions for factional dominance. Looking forward we should not be complacent that new forms of organisation will necessarily generate a shift towards shared leadership: many social entrepreneurs and tech entrepreneurs are highly directive and controlling in their behaviours.

We can sometimes see a more distributed and networked form of leadership in smaller, local, neighbourhood based community organisations, where there can be a much closer connection with beneficiaries (‘they could so easily be my daughter or my grandpa…’), where managers and staff and volunteers can have a high level of day to day interaction, and where leaders can be more likely to lend a direct hand in service delivery. 

Network-oriented leaders, who are very good at working with people, rather than telling people what to do, can be effective in such settings, but they often find it hard to gain access to circles of power, and when they do gain access, to be heard. This applies both to external gatherings of ‘sector leaders’, as well as internally where people who are less directive in their behaviours are often left out of key discussions.

As Toby Lowe from Newcastle University argues, we need to understand that organisations don’t produce outcomes, but that whole systems do. Good leadership therefore means avoiding the impulse to claim outcomes for a single organisation, but instead requires the skills to build a distinctive role within a wider system which produces change, and explain the value of ‘what we do’ in a very different way.

At a local level, it can be easier for everyone in leadership roles to get to know each other, and build system-wide working relationships, although it is also striking how often this doesn’t happen, and it is often the case that local agencies are not aware of each other, or if they are, they have a poor relationship.  

The role of funders can be significant in this.  Funders who are closer to whole systems are better able to support concerted and meaningful social change. The Big Lottery Fund for example struggles with this, because distance make it difficult to understand what added value a particular agency can bring, whereas local funders are, at least in theory, more able to build relationships and make the connections necessary to support whole system change, and support the models of leadership which allow collaborative working to flourish.