Awkward bedfellows and slippery concepts a.k.a. How to lead social change

Our Director Dr Henry Kippin writes for the Clore Social Leadership programme on the challenges of leading social change.

Leadership is a slippery concept. A verb, not a noun. A spirit, not a skillset. It is a term that is broad and deep enough to mean both everything and nothing. But there is no doubt that if leadership matters (as Richard Harries’s excellent paper suggests), then we need to strive to make sure that the concept can hold the weight we ascribe to it. This means we need to work on it.

The concept of leadership development is becoming more tricky to grasp in line with the changing context around it. This throws up more questions than answers. But anyone OK with a degree of complexity and nuance should absolutely welcome that. Peoples’ lives are complex and multi-faceted, so why should we expect positively changing them to be any less so?

Collaborate’s work is about supporting people who want to lead change through collaboration. Our work is about blurring sector boundaries to improve outcomes for the public. By its very nature, it unpicks the way we define sectors and understand services, and in this context effective leadership may have some counterintuitive traits. Let me explain…

1. Great organisational leadership is necessary but not sufficient – those with an eye on health and social care reform (for example) will note the prevalence of high quality hospitals functioning brilliantly within places in which some social outcomes haven’t changed for decades. Does great leadership mean more of the same? Clearly not. But just as unwelcome is a narrow version of system change that might help to keep organisations sustainable but is just as far from real co-production as ever. If the Brexit vote shows us anything, it is the acute need to close this gap. Social sector leaders should be actively working together to do so.

2. Collaboration and consensus make awkward bedfellows – any meaningful change is hard to effect. Yet we often expect this to happen across different organizations with multiple incentives in a complex environment with a remarkable degree of ease. Hope over experience on a grand scale!  Beyond creating good vibes in the room, collaborative leaders need to know how to be honest, when to say no (or even better: ‘I don’t know!’), and how to create the right commitment devices to support collective progress against shared goals with multiple stakeholders. That is why we talk about building ‘collaboration readiness’: it isn’t easy.

3. The social sector silo is dead. Long live collaborative social change – social change is not the preserve of the social sector, and nor can the sector deliver some of the aspirations it exists to address in-and-of-itself. Look at the JRF’s strategy for ending poverty: a clear role for business, government and society. Leaders need to care as much about their terms of engagement with other systems and sectors as their own independence, seeing their world through others’ eyes. For a 17-year old looking for work, a smartphone, a broadband connection and a mate with a job are the critical ingredients. None of these things are delivered as public services; none of these things are innate social goods. Yet social sector leaders recognize that part of their role is creating the conditions for these things to be accessible.

So how do we operationalise some of these insights in response to Shaks Gosh’s challenge of ‘new solutions’ and a need for ‘structured leadership development’? Collaborate’s own efforts have been written up recently as the Anatomy of Collaboration: the critical components of cross-sector leadership and delivery as defined by an expert group convened in partnership with Oxford University. One quote from a prominent social sector leader stands out for me: “Collaboration is an offer, not a demand. It should always come with a decent pitch”. One might say the same about leadership.

About Henry Kippin

Dr Henry Kippin is executive director of Collaborate. He is a visiting fellow at the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London, and at the UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence. Henry was previously a founding partner of the RSA 2020 Public Services Hub, an advisor to Accenture’s global Public Services for the Future programme, and head of research at an international development agency. He has a PhD from the University of Sheffield and is co-editor of ‘Public Services: a new reform agenda’, published in 2013 by Bloomsbury Press.

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