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. Last week we presented three of these strategies. Here you will find the remaining four:
As mentioned before, traditional leadership is all about stability and continuity. Thus, traditional leaders very much focus on wielding effective control over “their” organisations. Transformational leaders share ownership of the organisation with everybody who works for (staff and volunteers) and with (partners and other external stakeholders) the CSO. They leave space and encourage their colleagues to be creative and find their own responses to the opportunities and challenges that arise. A CSO that is fully owned by all the people involved is much more flexible and responsive to disruption than one that needs to move the observation of any change and the decision about a response up and down a formal hierarchy.
Set out the speed boats
Especially large organisations are difficult to change. They behave like huge oil tankers that take ages to accelerate or slow down, turn right or left. Many of the largest CSOs, organisations that turn around one billion dollars per year or more behave like those tanker. Changing their course may take more time than we have. Therefore, transformational leaders identify speed boats, smaller parts of their organisation which they can set out and empower to go faster and in different directions only directed by the need to cope with external change. Starting the transformation of the whole organisation with a selection of smaller parts of the whole has many advantages: smaller units are more flexible, the risk of failure is not as big, everybody on board the tanker can observe the speed boat and learn from its experiences without endangering the mother ship, etc. Speed boats ideally consist of units working at the forefront of change – e.g. clearly specified programmes and projects exploring new fields of work – and entrepreneurial people who enjoy exploring new territory and taking calculated risks.
The mantra of many traditional leaders is: “We are spending donated money, we cannot take risks”. However, in times of disruption, risk taking is unavoidable. CSOs need to test new approaches as the old ones are failing. And when you explore new ways of working a certain number of failures are unavoidable. Transformational leaders embrace risk. They know that a number of innovations their organisation embarks on will fail and they prepare for this. Rather than trying to avoid risks they manage risks professionally. Limiting risks by applying change to limited areas rather than the whole organisation, as described above, is one such strategy. Another important one is to establish state of the art monitoring and evaluation methods that allow you to detect failure early and change course quickly. And, the most important element of that strategy, leaders establish a culture where failure is not only acceptable but seen as necessary in order to improve the organisation’s performance: Those who never fail most probably haven’t tried hard enough to improve their own and their team’s performance.
Live the culture of transformation
Transformational leaders are most likely not the ones seen leading from the front. They encourage everybody to co-own and co-lead the organisation. They are serving leaders encouraging all others to shine and they often lead from the back. But they can only expect to be accepted as transformational leaders if they live and work as outstanding examples of transformation. Transformational leaders have to be seen to accept the risk of failure, otherwise they cannot expect others to take that risk. Transformational leaders have to be seen as willing to admit mistakes and change their mind, otherwise they cannot expect others to do so. In short, they need to apply the seven strategies not only in leading others but first and foremost in charting their own course ahead. They need to live transformational change. If they don’t they will be unable to take others along on the path of innovation and renewal.
Are you employing these or other strategies to drive change in your organisation? What are your experiences? What works best in leading change?