Building Better Way Leadership

Founding London cell: 15 November 2017

Our dominant culture of leadership runs very deep:

  • People crave strong leadership, someone to lead the way, someone with the answers, someone to believe in. 
  • The dominant leadership model is highly gendered, emphasising characteristics which are seen as essentially masculine. Leaders are expected to be supremely confident, decisive, directive and willing to punish weak performance.
  • Leadership is defined by job title and an assumption of power and authority accompanies the title.
  • When people become CEOs it not only changes their behaviours but also that of people around them. If a CEO expresses doubt or lack of confidence a common response is, don’t worry, of course you are a leader, you wouldn’t be a CEO otherwise. 
  • Others are not always prepared to share in leadership functions, especially in hierarchical organisations where financial reward is reserved for those in senior roles (‘what, you are asking me to do more, without rewarding me for this?’). 

We are up against a major societal shift, where values associated with highly competitive and even cut-throat competitive business environments have infected our core sense of ourselves. Fifty years ago, when asked to describe themselves, most people used ‘obituary  words’, typically focusing on character and quality of their relationships with others, whereas today most people use ‘CV words’, such as effective, impactful, smart etc.  It is hardly surprising therefore that we place high value in the myth of the high-achieving command and control leader. 

Better Way leadership might be something rather different. It might recognise that leadership is what happens when other people choose to follow you, not because of a job title.  It might therefore mean divesting hierarchical power.  It might also mean avoiding the impulse to present assured ‘solutions’ to complex problems, and instead cultivating a willingness to embrace uncertainty, and to work with others to find better ways forward. In other words, to create the conditions in which others can discover their ability to generate positive change and others can become more powerful.

This requires not only a shift away from controlling and punishing behaviours, but also a shift away from ‘rescuing’ behaviours.  Better Way leaders should not see themselves as saviours.  As the American labour leader Eugene Victor Debs said a century ago, ‘I would not be a Moses to lead you into the promised land even if I could, because if I led you in, someone else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.’

Some leaders like to say ‘don’t come to me with a problem – come with a solution’.  They believe that by saying this they are empowering others, encouraging them to take responsibility. But in fact that is not always the case, it can be an intimidating practice.  What is more often needed is a willingness to engage with others to understand problems, and help them find a way forward.

It is a necessary and legitimate part of the charity CEO role to be a spokesperson, and we do need people who can operate on the public stage, challenging injustice, calling for action, and it is not always necessary to put forward solutions.  Some of us thought that we could never make our Better Way propositions the basis of a mass movement or get the media excited.  But others thought there was real potential to shift the public narrative.  But that would mean speaking and acting differently from politicians in the media and talking about fundamental human values and questions, rather than simply accepting the current framework in which politicians work and seeking opportunities to fine-tune the policies they put forward.  Talking human, rather than politics.

We discussed why so few third sector leaders have a big public profile. In the public arena, leadership requires ‘followship’.  If we don’t get invited to the Today programme or Question Time or Breakfast TV it is partly because the ways we present ourselves are simply not interesting enough, we don’t provide sufficient ‘spectacle’. Camila Batmanghelidjh was a famous exception in this regard, but that did not make her a good social sector leader. On public platforms those who act as spokespeople for social change need to come across as authentic, driven by personal values, and also capable of displaying an ability to listen. 

Various forms of community development, including community organising, are designed to grow bottom-up citizen leadership. However, there is always the risk that citizens who take on the role of leaders simply replicate the old way of doing things, ending up like Napoleon in Animal Farm.  Better Way leadership will always need to be vigilant about the abuse of power.

A recent report by the RSA identifies three forms of power at community level: ‘the power arising from the individualistic agency of people, the solidaristic power of shared values and norms within communities and the hierarchical power of leadership and expertise within institutions.’  It claims that when ‘the interactions between all three powers come together in pursuit of common goals, much can be achieved.’  Leadership therefore, in its conventional sense, needs to be seen as just one element of the systems of power which can drive social change.

Perhaps we need to reject the idea that leadership means ‘an individual at the top’.  It is not always an individual, and not always at the top.  We must stop conflating leadership with managers and CEOs. The concept of ‘influence’ seems helpful. We all know people who are highly influential on those around them, and they are not always found at the top of organisations, in fact they can be found at all levels including junior levels.  Doing much more to recognise and celebrate such people, and redefining leadership as the capability to exert influence in pursuit of common goals and so create the conditions for positive change, feels like an important part of the Better Way narrative. Imagine the possibilities if everyone in an organisation was a leader?

Some questions for further discussion:

  • How can we produce strong leadership, where others choose to follow, without leaders claiming they have the answers?
  • Should we seek to redefine leadership as ‘influence’, recognising that effective influencers are found in many places, not just in a single individual at the top.
  • How can we disperse leadership in an unequal power system?
  • How might leaders talk about the Better Way principles to inspire others?