Sweet charity: developing charity leaders up, down and sideways

Charity Leadership in the 2020s

Programme information as it first appeared on the NCVO website in 2016

How can charity leaders develop the capabilities they’ll need in the 2020s?

Charity leaders deal with complexity. Charity leaders in the 2020s will find themselves working at the edge of what they know. Many, perhaps, already are. There are no silver leadership bullets, not even donated ones. Which is why charity leaders must be good at discovering and mastering new ways to lead. They must be good at challenging their own assumptions and exploring other perspectives: good at learning, in fact.  As J. F. Kennedy wrote, ‘Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.’

What’s the best way to help charity leaders learn?

Developing charity leaders is also a complex business. What kind of learning experiences will work best for charity leaders in the 2020s? And what can leaders in the 2020s learn from the experience of leaders who learned their trade in a pre-Brexit world? George Santayana said that those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Even so, perhaps we shouldn’t exclusively rely on current leaders to advise future leaders based on what worked for them. We need to get away from the known knowns. We have to discover how to deal with the unknown unknowns.

How do we future-proof leadership development?

Charity Leadership in the 2020s is a new programme designed to prepare charity leaders for the kinds of complexities and uncertainties that don’t yet exist or aren’t understood. We have to prepare the next generation of leaders to lead organisations that will change continuously.

Managers or leaders? Horizontal and vertical learning

We’re not talking about management development here. Management development is important, just as management is important: managers run the part of the organisational ‘operating system’ that scales up good ideas, makes them work cost-effectively, and helps people to see what will happen tomorrow. Managers need toolkits to keep the organisation on track, and that is what management development is for. You could think of it as horizontal learning: acquiring more skills, information, techniques, competencies. Getting better at performance management, dealing with conflict, project management are all examples of useful horizontal learning.

The importance of vertical learning

Leadership development, on the other hand, requires vertical learning: the development of more complex and sophisticated ways of thinking, to enable an organisational ‘operating system’ that is capable of accommodating new ideas. Conceptualising new ways of working with partners, working across silos and re-thinking organisational purpose are examples of what vertical learning might enable.

Leaders are also managers, so both horizontal and vertical learning are important. Charity Leadership in the 2020s focuses on the vertical.

Locating the learning sweet spot

We’ve used the terms ‘horizontal and vertical learning’ because they form the basis of a model that  has helped us in designing the programme. You can read more about the model on the Center for Creative Leadership website here. It sets out three primary conditions for leadership development programmes that aim to foster these more complex ways of thinking. They are:

  • Heat experiences: complex situations that disrupt and change participants’ ‘habitual ways of thinking’
  • Colliding perspectives: challenging, provocative contributors who differ both from each other and from the worldview of many of the participants
  • Elevated sense-making – to make sense of the heat experiences and colliding perspectives and integrate them.

Leadership programmes that successfully combine these three primary conditions create a ‘sweet spot’ where learning can take place in all three areas.

Collective Learning

To the three elements of this model, we have added a fourth. This is Collective learning. We believe that the challenges of leadership in the 2020s will require a collective, collaborative and flexible approach to decision-making. Traditional models of the leader as lone hero just don’t apply any more in leadership. And what’s more, remembering Kennedy’s dictum about learning and leadership, we don’t think there’s any space for them either in programmes about leadership.

Learning by design

We have designed into our programme all four of these elements. Among the heat experiences and colliding perspectives will be a realistic scenario, a real-life stretch project undertaken in collaboration between groups of participants and their organisations, and  a panel ‘provocation’. And sense-making structures will include Theory ‘U’ and the use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to give us a shared language for exploring difference; and peer coaching in trios, creating a reflective space.

Charity leadership in the 2020s will be complex in ways that we cannot predict. This is why we believe our job is to take charity leaders to the sweet spot where they can learn to lead – up, down and sideways.

Edward Kellow and Rebecca Nestor


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