More than 2,500 years ago Lao-Tzu defined good leadership: “A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. Fail to honour people, they fail to honour you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will all say‚ we did this ourselves.” All the books which have been written on leadership since would fill quite an impressive library, but the essentials haven’t changed. When discussing leadership with senior managers I recommend that they use the following question when reflecting on their own leadership: “Would my colleagues also follow my directions if I were not to be their line manager and did not have disciplinary powers over them?” If the answer is yes you may be a leader – or you may have misjudged your colleagues’ opinion of you. In simple terms: managers are appointed by their superiors, leaders are chosen by their followers.
This means, not all managers are leaders – in fact, very few are – and not all leaders are managers. All of us have most probably come across leaders who do not have a formal leadership position, people who are influential because of their personality, respected opinion, ability to resolve conflicts, or other leadership qualities. Some of the most impressive personalities can be recognised as leaders, even though they are not able to play an active role. Take Nelson Mandela as an example: he became a great leader during his time in prison, just by not giving in and not giving up – and he became an impressive change leader once he was released from jail and granted the formal powers of South Africa’s President.
From managing the status quo to leading change
A good manager will easily be able to fulfil all tasks required under the existing regime. He will manage his team, secure the seamless cooperation with other parts of the organisation, provide reports to the senior management and undertake all other duties he is tasked to take on. The challenges become much more demanding once change is supposed to happen. Change management is a completely different ball game: new processes have to be developed, new structures implemented, new forms of cooperation established, different communication lines opened up, new routines put in place and all members of the team have to be brought along, encouraged to embrace change and to accept their new roles in a new set-up. Change management is not rocket science. It is a well explored and documented trade which can be learned by studying books or taking courses. However, in-depth change and, even more so, ongoing change, requires additional skills which go beyond management: we need change leaders.
We have discussed the need for a culture which embraces and promotes change. Such a culture will hardly emerge without strong, dedicated and credible leadership. A change leader embodies change. She lives and breathes change. She is curious and interested in new developments. She is open and without prejudices. She is prepared to take calculated risks herself and encourages others to do so. She provides cover to those who experiment with new options and occasionally fail. She is prepared to accept disadvantages for herself which may arise from change, and is willing to sacrifice her personal interest for the common good. She does not have to be a good change manager in technical terms but she knows the colleagues who are and she puts them in the strategic positions where they can secure the smooth logistics of change. She takes special care of those who fear being victims of change and goes to great lengths to help them become drivers of change. She lives a culture of change and by her example sets the parameters for the whole organisation.
We probably all know people who embody many of the characteristics described above. However, in organisations which feel that long ago they have found the best way forward, and value routine over innovation, change leaders are not welcome. They either leave quickly or find other ways inside or outside the organisation to focus their energy and determination. What I found fascinating during my own change journeys is how quickly the very first steps towards change divide staff into three camps: those who are excited about change and enthu-siastically welcome and support change – usually a small minority, those who take a ‘wait and see’ approach hoping not to be affected all too much by change – often the vast majority, and those who openly resist change. A good change leader will enable most of the ‘wait and see’ majority to join the change process and may even bring some of the resisters on board. However, bringing everybody on board will hardly be possible.
And here lies one of the main challenges for change leaders in our sector: how to go about persistent resistance to change? The corporate sector will usually release people who are unable or unwilling to go along with changes management has decided to undertake. In the civil society sector we instinctively try to accommodate the opposition, to ignore resistance as far as possible and work around obstruction, rather than confronting those who refuse to change. This approach sends all the wrong signals to all other colleagues: those who are not yet certain about embracing change find that they don’t have to, those who have hesitantly come on board with the change process may reconsider their position and those enthusiastically embracing change may get frustrated by the pockets of resistance the leadership tolerates.
The decision of whether to look for change leaders or managers of the status quo predominantly depends on an organisation’s board. In our sector, it is not uncommon for boards – that are usually made up of volunteers with limited time and limited capacity to control the CEO – to select a manager whom they feel they are able to keep under control rather than a leader who may bring change which they might be overwhelmed by. However, at a time when the outside world demands change, boards and other governing bodies need to find the courage and determination to groom, hire and support change leaders. Developing a board that embraces and is prepared to lead change is certainly the most important step in the development of credible and effective change leadership throughout the organisation. In my opinion, any board in one of the leading ICSOs today that does not have ‘in-depth change’ on top of their agenda, that does not demonstrate in its own performance the necessity and desirability of change, is failing to do its job.
Leadership teams – team leadership
This is a good place to return to Jim Collins once more. When looking into the essential components of a great company, leadership plays a key role. He points out that all top performing companies from his research had excellent leaders; he calls them ‘Level 5 leaders’. He explains: “Level 5 leaders embody a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will. They are ambitious, to be sure, but ambitious first and foremost for the company, not themselves. (…) Level 5 leaders look out of the window to attribute success to factors other than themselves. When things go poorly, however, they look in the mirror and blame themselves, taking full responsibility.”68 Collins also talks about “getting the right people on the bus”, even before the leader knows where the bus is going. So, ‘the right people’ are not defined by technical qualities which would relate to a specific direction the company is supposed to take. They are defined by their personalities. They are leaders in their own right. The top companies’ “management teams consist of people who debate vigorously in search of the best answers, yet who unify behind decisions, regardless of parochial interests.” The star is not the top leader but the team of leaders that is able to use the leadership skills of each individual to promote the company as a whole.
Collins is surprised to find that the leaders of the top performing companies are not widely known management superstars but, on the contrary, modest people who often shy away from the limelight. Collins also shows the detrimental effects superstar leaders have on their companies: they usually push the earnings of the company up very quickly which propels them personally into the limelight. But this success is rarely sustainable and often fades away, even while the superstar is still on board. Leaders of this kind do not usually tolerate other leaders nearby. They do not encourage joint ownership, joint strategising and joint leadership. When the superstar leaves the company a capable successor has rarely been groomed and results go down, which may add to the glory of the superstar but not to the success of the company.
This is good news for our sector as superstar leaders aren’t welcome here anyway. However, fully empowered and capable leadership teams are also rare. The idea of getting the right people on the bus first is not a habit of ICSOs. New CEOs usually have to live – or feel they have to live – with the people they have in their leadership teams. This approach is slowly changing, and the habit of strategically developing the most suitable leadership team is taking hold. Both the complexity and speed of change requires a wide range of sometimes contradictory, or conflicting, qualities which one single person cannot possibly embody. A well-balanced and mutually reinfor-cing leadership team can bring all the required skills, experiences and personal qualities to the table. In addition, such a team has the advantage of greater resilience as the disappearance of individual members can be much more easily compensated than the loss of a superstar leader. Leadership teams are much more in line with the typical ICSO culture. Organisations should use this trait to their benefit and recruit strong leadership teams led by a modest but highly capable leader. The recruitment of such teams needs to look for the right personalities and attitudes rather than just the right skills.
Leading by vision
By far the most attractive feature of ICSOs is their highly ethical mission. Who would object to noble causes such as saving children, protecting a healthy environment and securing human rights? Most people who work in our sector are attracted by the opportunity to contribute to an ethical cause. Given that this is the core of everything we do, the limited role we allocate to our mission is surprising. This is in stark contrast to many companies which have a much less impressive basis for their mission but work hard to promote their companies’ values among their employees as a means of consistency and in support of the companies’ leadership. Even tobacco companies seem to be able to create some pride among their employees about working for an employer which has to put big health warnings on its products. If such a strange alignment is possible between employees and a company that destroys the health of millions of people and reduces the average life expectancy of their customers by several years, why are ICSOs not much more effective in using their mission as a basis for leadership? Probably because we are taking the mission and everybody’s support for the mission as granted; we are not valuing the treasure we have in our hands. This is especially sad when it comes to leading change. Taking on one of the biggest leadership challenges without using our greatest asset is a tragic mistake.
I have made this mistake and I have observed many others doing the same, explaining the need for change by referring to aspects of our work which do not generate optimal outcomes and explaining how change would remedy this. We listed many tiny reasons to change many tiny aspects. Meanwhile I have been working with many of the leading ICSOs on how to conduct change processes. Nearly always I find that we justify change by looking inside the organisation rather than at the outside world, and by looking to its past rather than its future. We usually ask: what is not working well in our organisation and how do we fix it? The answers we receive may help us fix a problem with internal policies or processes we have had in the past. However, often we find that while we conduct our reorganisation, new challenges arise and we embark on another round of change. This is the safest way to destroy motivation and create ‘change fatigue’. In the fast changing world we are living in, any change process should aim to prepare our organisation for the future demands and expectations of the outside world. Rather than trying to fix an internal problem of the past, change should be driven by the question how can we best achieve our mission in the future?
Another bad mistake in my eyes is the use of the ‘burning platform’ concept as the starting point for change. I have heard it several times in discussions within our sector, and it makes me very nervous. This concept of scaring people into change hasn’t worked in the case of Nokia, whose CEO invented it, and it will hardly work in ICSOs. There is also no need at all for such a negative concept. Change needs to occur in the shape of an impressive vision of how we can all contribute to better achieving our joint mission. Change needs to be perceived as a wonderful opportunity we need to seize in order to be more successful in our joint endeavours. Change needs to be exciting and rewarding, not a means of last resort in order to avoid disaster.
Leading by vision does not necessarily mean that the leader has to produce the vision, but she has to credibly stand for it. A manager will give people comfort by showing that she understands the technicalities of change. A leader will paint the big picture and instil confidence in people that they can resolve the technicalities. I have seen several examples which show how far leadership by vision can go in our sector. Here is one which I have been especially impressed by: When Save the Children started its ‘Unified Presence’ project it was clear from the beginning that in countries with four or five field offices, only one would be left by the end of the process. This meant that quite a number of positions would disappear and people would lose their jobs. The most powerful people in this process were the field directors. They would sit together, all four or five of them, and plan the transition towards the new unified structure. They all knew that, at best, one of them would be left as the field director of the unified programme, while all others would have to find a new job. Finding this job within Save the Children would be difficult because so many colleagues would apply for a much smaller number of positions. In this situation I was very impressed with how loyal and professional the field directors were in their engagement which would abolish most of their own jobs. I asked some of them to explain to me, why there was no or only minor resistance to this change. The replies all went in the same direction: “We are all working here to improve the lives of disadvantaged children. There is no question that a unified structure will be much better in achieving our goals. Therefore I am strongly in favour of these changes even though they may bring some difficulties for me personally”.
Business, politics, everyone who is not working in our sector, envies us for the inherent motivation and commitment of our staff and volunteers. All those who carry some responsibility in our sector should honour this commitment and put it to optimal use towards the organisations’ mission. This is only possible if we are courageous, ambitious and honest enough to lead by vision.