Wright, N. (2021), 'Outside In - A Change in Who and What Drives Change', Clore Social Leadership, 3 March.
'I want to exercise social leadership, not just organisational leadership.' (Elaine McGinty)
If you have seen the recent Netflix satirical drama, Emily in Paris, you will be familiar with the subtle-yet-radical distinction drawn between ‘influencers’ and, in this case, traditional marketing agencies. The central character, Emily, exerts influence through her personal presence, appearance, attitude and behaviour, and through engaging others via social media. She models leadership as a relational dynamic, in contrast to more conventional ideas of leadership related to structure or hierarchy. It shifts the fundamental, central focus from what drives change, to who.
There are resonances here with wider social and political phenomena that, in the social sector, we will do well to pay careful attention to. Many beyond-profit organisations still operate from what is, arguably, an outdated organisation-centric paradigm. The basic modus operandi is this: “We are organisation X. We want to see change Y. Come and join us!” As such, the organisation perceives, positions and presents itself as the optimal vehicle for a desired social change and invites others to support its efforts, e.g. via financial giving, volunteering, campaigning or employment.
Now clearly, organisations do have certain advantages over the actions and activities of individuals. Organisations are, in most cases, still more likely to get a seat at the table of other organisations, including e.g. funders, governments or multilateral institutions. They will typically command larger budgets; creating opportunities for economy of scale and ability to run substantial, coordinated and sustainable programmes. They may also have access to the resources needed to develop and use specialist technologies that extend communications, type and scope of services and reach.
Yet there can be a costly flipside. Organisations are, by definition, organised (although the nature and degree of organisation varies widely) and this can create challenges with e.g. flexibility, adaptability, responsiveness and innovation. Organisations can, too, consume significant proportions of ‘their’ resources to develop, run and sustain themselves. At worst, organisations can lose touch with the realities and felt-experiences of their beneficiaries and supporters. As such, they can forfeit their vision, passion and mandate to catalyse and serve as agents of transformation.
Which begs some interesting and important questions for the social sector. At a time when the contexts in which we are operating are so volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous; when disintermediation is increasingly favoured over corporate control; when people are preferring direct experience and action to vicarious involvement; when social media is democratising social and political engagement; when a single, inspiring activist can exert more influence than governments in the world; what role then for organisations, and what does this call for as leadership?
Here are some thoughts. Firstly, social change organisations will need to shift further away from a conventional organisation-centric mentality to a more radically cause-centric one. This will involve scanning the environment – including in unexpected places – for people who are already exerting influence, who are already having an impact, and asking, ‘How can we support you?’ rather than ‘Will you support us?’ It will entail networking, spotting potential, making connections, creating synergies and being willing to step out of the spotlight to give others visibility and room.
Leaders of such organisations will need humility and courage; to practise dispersed and distributed leadership; to be willing to experiment, take risks and learn with others on route; to ensure open, permeable boundaries between the organisation’s internal and external environments and relationships; to embrace a spirit of curiosity that discovers, evokes, creates and empowers leadership in others; to affirm, nurture and sustain leadership that knows no structures or hierarchy; to take a stance for spiritual qualities, including authentic love, trust, discernment, faith and hope.
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‘Great article, Nick. I particularly like the point about moving away from a conventional organisation-centric mentality to a more radically cause-centric one, and the principle of looking to support people who are already influencing and making change and supporting them rather than asking them (as I fear charities so often do) to support us. It is all too easy to get wrapped up in organisational preservation and this becoming an end in itself. There is probably something quite profound in this about human nature, the need for protection and the way we design organisations to reward safety. Radicals tend to change the world through movements not organisations!’ (Paul Breckell)