‘I don’t think you ever arrive on your own’

In the last post on leadership, we saw how much importance all the organizations attached to encouraging and developing leadership among their constituencies. How do they apply that precept to themselves? Is it different from encouraging and developing leadership among the communities they serve? And how do they run or guide an organization, yet pay due regard to the notion of distributed leadership?

In most cases, encouraging leadership among staff and colleagues takes place informally. For Ikhala, that’s one of the virtues of being a small organization. ‘We all share the same office, we travel together and in those conversations, mentoring and coaching are almost organic so when people say “what’s your programme around mentoring?”, I don’t know what they mean,’ says Bernie Dolley. ‘It’s all as and how it happens.’ She acknowledges that this would be ‘very different in a bigger institution where you have to set time aside and that’s a huge difference in the way institutions are structured.’ She also doesn’t ‘think it’s difficult to encourage leadership if people are wanting to take the lead,’ and finds that this ‘has to be accompanied by mentoring or coaching because that’s the support that I get.’

At Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust, ‘staff are given additional responsibilities as they exhibit growth,’ says Ambika Satkunanathan as well as opportunities for professional development, such as study visits to other countries, the institution paying the fees for their further education etc.’

The Red Umbrella Fund is ‘participatory and activist/ community-led,’ says Nadia van der Linde. ‘Decisions are made largely by consensus in the Steering Committee.’ Like Ikhala, it has a small staff – ‘four paid staff with one coordinator who can make final decisions, but in reality the lines are short, and information and decision-making is shared or distributed as much as possible and relevant.’ Again, as with Ikhala, this tends to happen informally. ‘Most of the learning is by doing, through experience and seizing and getting opportunities to learn, and sharing insights, peer support and tips.’ In this way, for staff and for Steering Committee or Advisory Committee members, attention is paid to ‘peer learning, sharing opportunities’.

How much of a distinction is there between leadership of an organization and leadership of a field? For Bernie Dolley, it’s a difference of degree, not in kind. ‘I think exercising leadership in an organization and in a community are basically the same, but on a different scale.’

What may make a difference, believes Martin Macwan, is the type of organization, its ‘genesis and history of the organization; the socio-cultural-political context in which it operates; the objectives, culture and value of the organization; and its understanding of power.’ He goes on: ‘in one model Power may be perceived as the ability of a person to influence thoughts and actions of others, while in another it may be understood as a means to dominate and dictate them. In an organization where all are treated as equals, both the elements; feedback and self-critique may be higher compared to an organization where decisions are valued as per hierarchical order with limited space for participation.’


Leadership vs management?

So, in a social change organisation, committed on principle to shared direction, where does leadership lie? Organizations need management. What happens if and when there is conflict between the two? Ambika Satkunanathan argues that ‘not every decision can, or even should be made via consensus. The way to avoid conflict,’ she feels, ‘is to be clear about which decisions should most definitely be open to participation by staff and are best arrived at through consensus, and which decisions should be made by the management and shared with staff.’

Moreover, Nadia van der Linde, draws an important distinction between leadership and management: ‘Management is a function, a task, that can take place at various levels and be part of various people’s responsibilities or roles in an office….Leaders or leadership can take place at any level, and can move around depending on circumstances or activity. There can be many “leaders” or people “taking leadership” or people “seen as having leadership” at the same time in a team. It can go hand in hand with the management, but doesn’t have to.’


The characteristics of leadership

These can be as slippery and as difficult to pin down as other aspects of leadership and, here again, there are likely to be any number of them. For Bernie Dolley, ‘one of the key things is that you’ve got to be absolutely flexible. Being able to be agile is really key and, for me a big thing is to be courageous – to name what is wrong and to be able to challenge that….to have the courage to speak out which is not common. A lot of leaders, perceived leaders, are silent. It’s all about their own little world and I’m concerned around what is the greater impact and why do you actually exist? It’s not the ‘what’, it’s the ‘why’ for me….you have to think why you’re doing this in the first place.’

Ambika Satkunanathan, too, speaks indirectly of courage – the courage of conviction: ‘due to the fact that many non-profits work in conflict situations and authoritarian or repressive regimes that are complex and even dangerous, [the leadership] will encounter numerous ethical dilemmas that require principled and ethical decisions.’

For Martin Macwan ‘negotiation and education’ are ‘the true test of leadership’.

Another concept that you can add to this list is trust. One of Bernie Dolley’s challenges as a leader was that, as founding director of Ikhala, she worked alone for a long time and then in a very small team and admits, ‘I struggled with delegation for a long time …I had to learn to trust that others also can do….that’s the key thing for me – trust…and that seems to have been broken down in many, many spaces that I’m in – colleagues not trusting each other, not trusting their leader.’

In creating or recreating this trust, leadership is crucial, she feels. The absence of trust has come about because of neglect of the human element of relationships, which it’s a leader’s role to foster. ‘For me the relationships are key, that’s why we exist….I’ve seen that sort of thing disappear in organizations. There are no human relationships, it’s all about the work,’ yet, ‘those human connections are so critical to people’s ability to be able to perform well. I think that’s fundamental to leadership in any forum – being able to attend to that human stuff.’


So what is leadership?

It’s not a question that can ever be fully answered. We’ve seen the term used in different ways by the contributors to these articles. None of them are mutually exclusive and all of them are legitimate. They don’t correspond to a readily-defined group of characteristics. Is leadership a set of personal qualities, of actions, of attitudes? The answer seems to be that it’s all of them. Two things are clear: first, it involves the questions of power and agency that lie at the heart of social change work. Second – and because of this – leadership can and should come from anywhere.

While it may be difficult to quantify leadership, we shouldn’t get hung up on that. Like Bernie Dolley, most will feel it’s easy enough to spot it when they see it: ‘Intuitively, I can easily identify leadership – people who are bold enough to take risks, to be passionate about what they do, to embrace others’ ideas….[and] very frank about what doesn’t work, that’s normally who I’d gravitate towards.’

One thing more to add: although on the face of it, it may seem strange, leaders don’t just offer help and guidance, they also need the same things from their colleagues, not simply to mentor them in their role or to help them to discover their own qualities leadership, but to provide a prop when needed: ‘I have a group that I call my critical friends. They’re all much older than me but they’ve worked in the development space and I go to them when I’m feeling like the burden’s too heavy. I don’t think you ever arrive on your own.’


Andrew Milner is a freelance writer, researcher and editor specializing in the areas of philanthropy and civil society. He is a consultant to Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace. He is also a regular contributor to, and associate editor of, Alliance magazine.