Burkhard Gnärig

15 August, 2017

Seven Strategies of Transformational Leadership Part I

In so many posts this blog has documented how the civil society sector is increasingly affected by a whole range of disruptions, many of which have the potential to undermine if not destroy the work of local, national and international civil society organisations (CSOs). In order to survive and thrive in a disruptive environment CSOs will have to continuously transform themselves, adapting to fundamental changes, overcoming critical challenges and seizing new opportunities.

CSOs’ need for continuous transformation demands a very different leadership style. While traditional leaders had to stand for stability and consistency, transformational leadership has to stand for flexibility and adaptability. While traditional leaders embody continuity, transformational leaders embody change.

Over the past few years the Centre has supported many CSOs with coming to terms with disruption. In the course of our work we have identified seven key strategies used by transformational leaders. Here we will look at the first three strategies and in next week’s blog at the remaining four.

Look to the outside

This is probably the single most important strategy as organisations tend to focus their leaders’ attention on the inside: two colleagues have a conflict that needs to be resolved; the last board decision is stuck in bureaucracy and needs to be rescued; a new IT system needs to be procured; etc. While all of these are important management tasks, the organisation’s future will be decided in the outside world: Transformational leadership will dedicate most of their time on coming to terms with external developments such as partners’ changing needs, the shift in donors’ interests, effects of environmental destruction on the organisation’s work, the changing terms of poverty, shrinking space for civil society action, etc.

Look to the future

Similarly important is the perspective towards the future. Having advised many CSOs on organisational change we have often observed a focus on resolving the problems of the past. When an analysis of organisational shortcomings starts with the observation: “Over the past five years…” we are in trouble. Probably the main reason for widely spread change fatigue is that we tend to resolve the problems of the past rather than the ones of the future. We go through lengthy processes of analysis, consultation, decision making and implementation only to find that, once the change process finally has been concluded the world has moved on and we need another round of reform. Transformational leaders will set up their organisation to meet the requirements of the future, not the ones of the past.

Lead by vision

Our sector has benefited a lot by adopting many of the professional management approaches pioneered by business. However, together with the terms of efficient management – and together with a growing number of business executives we have hired into our sector – we have often lost some of the magic that makes our sector so special: our vision of a peaceful just and sustainable world. We are leading our organisations based on financial growth figures, return on investment (ROI), cost effectiveness, etc. rather than based on the vision of a world without poverty or a world where mankind lives in peace with nature, or a world without violence, etc. Especially at times of frequent disruption we have to re-discover our vision of a better world as the most important driver of change in our organisations. The vast majority of people working for CSOs are driven by the desire to save children, to preserve the environment, etc. Explaining the need for change to them on the basis of increasing the ROI is a terrible idea – convincing them that change will allow us to save more children is a good one.

Are you employing these or other strategies to drive change in your organisation? What are your experiences? What works best in leading change?

Please join us again next week for another four strategies of transformational leadership.

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