Monday, 9 March 2009

The fear of leadership

Last night the BBC aired a programme on Radio 5 Live. It was about the organisation I work for - Common Purpose - and picked up on the accusations of us being a sinister organisation being made by Brian Gerrish and others. Of course I'm not overjoyed by it, but one of the issues raised on the programme made me think. The programme suggested that our description of leadership - leading beyond authority - appears sinister.

But leadership isn't something that can be confined to boundaries of authority. Surely the recent financial crisis has taught us that at least. Social and economic challenges aren't going to respect structures and boundaries that we put in place, and problems in our own organisations or communities won't remain neatly inside the boundaries of one department or geography. People will have to learn how to deal with things outside their authority.

I don't mean people should go and interfere for the sake of it, it's more complex than that. But we do need more people who believe they can make a difference and understand how to go about it. Part of that is accepting leadership as a positive thing, not something to be frightened of. Someone who wants something to change is going to have to lead it. Doing nothing won't make a difference.

Youth crime is a great example of this: Police can't solve this on their own, they need to work with communities, with parents, schools, politicians and community activists alike. But to do this Police need to reach out and understand these different people, to stop seeing them as part of the problem and start seeing them as part of the solution. They then need to communicate with them, share the problems, build coalitions of people to take things forward. For me this means leading.

Part of the strength of talking with people about leadership is it forces a very powerful conversation about whether or not individuals can make a difference. I've worked with so many people who've rejected it because they are uncomfortable with the responsibility that it appears to carry, or who think it is a label that can only be used by those in senior positions. It's this very fear that I want people to overcome. Why can't a single mum who wants to improve conditions on her estate be called a leader. And when she is she can't be told to lead within her authority, because all the answers lie well beyond her authority.

Does leading beyond authority sound sinister or is it just another way of helping leaders understand that problems don't come in neat packages?

I've put a link here to leading beyond authority so you can read the formal stuff if you want.


Jemima Gibbons said...

Hi Oliver,
I found your blog via David Wilcox. I'm writing a book on the impact of social media on leadership so your case is of particular interest. I like your idea of "leading beyond authority" and generally agree with everything you say above. It seems to me that it is the structure and working practices of Common Purpose that are under attack more than anything. Good luck with opening these up - if you want good advice, David's your man!
Best wishes,

Oliver said...

Thanks Jemima,

Sorry it took a day for your comment to come up, I just hadn't realised I had to moderate and publish, and I read it when it was emailed to me. I think there is something in what you are saying and we are hoping to become more open. I think this recent campaign against us has highlighted things we say and do that create a sense of secrecy (unnecessarily). Would love to hear more about your work on social media and leadership as we are starting to look at how it can be used on our programmes.


Anonymous said...

Dear Oliver,

I'm mightily heartened by the fact that you are "paying attention to the criticisms and trying to work out how we (i.e. Common Purpose) can come across as less closed."

On the subject of leadership, one can only sympathise with CP's objectives. With the present state of management in the UK, perhaps it would be more fruitful to concentrate on Leadership Beyond Mental Capacity, especially as authority seems to be waning fast.

Returning to my first point... let's hope that CP's search for openness makes it past the comment moderation

Best wishes,