It has become a platitude to say that we live in increasingly complex and unpredictable times. In this “age of anxiety” that such a climate is creating, we need really strong leadership like we’ve never needed it before.
As the author and strategy consultant Robert Phillips says, we need leaders who can “actively embrace complexity and dissent; transform old, rigid, super-tanker organisations into open and adaptive social movements; and make themselves vulnerable and accountable to the many, not the few; to campaign together, in new and sometimes surprising coalitions, for public value and the common good”.
Many of those best equipped to provide this kind of creative and transformative leadership must be campaigners in the voluntary sector. Campaigners by their nature are creative, adaptive and, of course, passionate and driven. Working in charities, they have a ring-side seat to observe the impact of fast-paced change on people’s lives and, not being constrained by profit motive or electoral success, are free to name it. So why do we seem to hear from them so rarely in our public life?
Sheila McKechnie, the founder of the charity that I run, was just such a leader. She had a very high public profile, regularly appearing in the media and with an exceptional personal network of influencers too. She was a player. And she was powerful. How many charity leaders could we say this of today? Shami Chakrabarti would be one (although I personally regret her taking a Labour peerage). Camila Batmanghelidjh, perhaps, but not now, given the closure of Kids Company. Certainly, there are hugely impressive people who are well known in the sector and perhaps by government. But very few have public profile, which is surely what we need.
I have found myself wondering if this is in part because campaigners rarely become organisational leaders, or that they are not the kinds of people trustees appoint to run their charities. In terms of skills, it feels like management, finance and fundraising skills trump all others. Campaigners rarely excel in these disciplines, in my experience, and perhaps because of a risk-averse culture that deters boards from appointing chief executives who have strong views and are willing to challenge. A good friend of mine who has run organisations in the past has been consulting and doing some journalism. She told me she feared she’d never get a senior job again because she had been too outspoken. She has, as it happens, but what a waste that would have been.
In these spin-immune, post-truth times, the people fronting campaigns are a huge factor in their success. Think Farage and Brexit – the messenger is just as important as the message. In not recognising the power of charismatic leadership and public profile, civil society is failing to use one of the most powerful tools in the activist arsenal. These are not times to play it safe. We need brave and inspiring campaigners to be shouting from the rooftops. Can we have some more campaigners in top jobs, please, and give them full encouragement to have strong views, be brave and take risks? To lead, in fact.