Being a “leader”
I have never really considered myself a leader. I never even aspired to be a leader when I was growing up (although I refuse to admit that means I am actually a “grown up” now). I think I had a vague idea about wanting to be useful or making a difference to something, but I never really associated this with a particular role or a desire for some kind of power or control. Leadership to me meant being in charge of something, and it wasn’t that the thought of being “in charge” of something never really appealed to me. It just never really occurred to me.
I was fired from my first exploration into leadership. I was around 16 or 17 when I joined the youth section of the local branch of a national charity as a volunteer. It was rubbish and I hated it, but instead of leaving, I complained and somehow ended up coordinating it. Suddenly I had something to lead and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Membership grew from about five to over 50 within a few months, and this was in an area of Salford where young people such as myself were often labelled as difficult to engage and hard to reach (I hate those terms). I didn’t really know anything about leadership and no one told me what to do, so I made it up as I went along and I did it my own way. If we were starting a new project, the young people were asked who wanted to lead it and they explained to the others what leadership meant to them and how they would approach it. The others decided what they thought was needed for this particular piece of work and they chose a leader together. This always changed and we agreed a different way forward each time depending on the situation, although there were always some common themes. They always wanted to make decisions together, they wanted to be listened to and they wanted to be part of a team. The average age was between nine and 12 years old, but they consistently knew what they wanted from a leader.
If we needed to decide what badge we were going to work towards, we put the shiny promotional leaflets (that had been written by an adult) away, and the young people that had already completed the various topics talked to their peers about what they had completed in the past and why they enjoyed it. The group then decided together which one to do next. Every decision was made between us. Everyone had a say and everyone contributed. One person loved music and couldn’t think of another way to have a role, so their job was to collect everyone’s favourite songs and make a mix tape for the coach when we went on a trip out (Does anyone else really miss making a mix tape? Online play lists just aren’t the same……)
At 19 years old, I knew nothing about leadership and would have really struggled to tell you who I looked up to as a leader, but I fundamentally believed that every one of those young people was a leader in that space and that their collective ideas, knowledge and creativity were far greater than mine alone. My job was to somehow harness that and get them to do something amazing and learn together. Over 20 years later I realise that we’d probably call that something like coproduction, or asset based, but back then my volunteering role was ended after two years, because the view of the people above me was that I was lazy and got the young people to do my work instead of doing things and making decisions myself. They saw the belief that the young people had more answers than I did alone as a personal weakness and failure.
It was an experience, which left me struggling with the concept of leadership for years, but I learnt two things about leadership that day. The first was about communication and the importance of really sharing not only what you are doing, but why you are doing it and why you are approaching it in that way. The second, which I realised too late, was that it was clear that their vision of a leader was someone who had all the answers, made all the decisions and did all of the work. A leader was the person that everyone looked up to, controlled everything and had a plan.
There are obviously loads of roles, spaces and situations where that kind of leadership is vital, but there are also lots of situations where it isn’t, and where adopting that kind of approach can actually cause harm and limit the participation of the people that we desperately need to work with in a different way. But as I find myself more involved in conversations about leadership now, particularly as we’re talking more about working in an integrated way, and looking at complex or “wicked problems” where one organisation or even one sector alone can’t make any progress, I can see that it’s still an expectation that we have of our leaders. Identify a problem, write a plan or strategy, get people to deliver it and monitor it, but inadvertently exclude in the design the people that will do the work and will directly benefit. The leaders have all the answers! My worry is that we’re attempting to force one approach to leadership and working across systems on top of lots of new challenges and opportunities that need something different
But who are our leaders anyway?
I go to so many meetings and events where leadership is defined as chief executives, senior managers or someone above a particular salary band. It’s about someone’s position as opposed to how they work and what they can do. That excludes me, and most of the people I know who are really working hard to create change, but I think that we have a lot to offer this conversation. I’ll hear people talking about systems leadership, and how it’s a group of very senior people from across a number of different organisations and sectors, and I don’t think that’s right either. I’ve spent the last few years working with lots of different people from lots of different places to re-define what we mean by the word “leader”. What I’ve realised (which I’m pretty sure I knew anyway) is that leaders are everywhere, and it’s absolutely nothing to do with job title, salary band, position in the hierarchy or how much formal power or influence people have. The interesting thing is that our strongest, most effective and most inspirational leaders, often don’t consider themselves to be leaders at all, but they are working together, normally outside and beyond their organisations, at the edge of the formal structures of the system to bring about significant change. They are forming networks where they share ideas and support each other. They talk about values, relationships, behaviours and trust and how you can’t achieve anything without these, but they are the things that we talk about least when most of the conversations in meetings revolve around structures, governance, action logs and strategies. They can see the tricky issues that are starting to emerge and feel safe enough to say that they don’t have the answer alone. They bring together diverse groups of people who all have bits of the answer to find solutions together and they are making bonds and friendships that get stuff done.
It mainly happens in pubs, coffee shops, corridors and car parks. Normally after a meeting where they haven’t been able to say a word or contribute. Often when they haven’t felt safe enough to disagree with what was being said in the meeting (and realise later that half the room agreed with them and they didn’t feel safe enough either) and mainly when they haven’t even been invited to the meeting in the first place. We need these real leaders in the system. They are the people that everyone knows, everyone trusts and that can bring people together, not through their authority, but through their vision and their ability to recognise a shared purpose or common cause.
I love this quote from Margaret Mead:
“Despite current ads and slogans, the world doesn't change one person at a time. It changes when networks of relationships form among people who share a common cause and vision of what's possible. This is good news for those of us intent on creating a positive future. Rather than worry about critical mass, our work is to foster critical connections. We don't need to convince large numbers of people to change; instead, we need to connect with kindred spirits. Through these relationships, we will develop the new knowledge, practices, courage and commitment that lead to broad-based change”
This is the first of a series of blogs where I’ll be sharing some thoughts and reflections about leadership, how it’s changing and what we need now and in the future. Next time I’ll be telling the story of our systems leadership work and I’ll end this with some lovely advice from Debbie Sorkin “when things get tough, shared purpose, values and a good support network will get you through”