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Developing leadership practice in voluntary organisations
Developing leadership practice in voluntary organisations

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1 Slippery leadership, significant leadership

It's a grey autumn day in an out-of-town, out-of-hope office block. It’s time for you to attend the weekly staff meeting. Armed with your novelty tea mug and last traces of summer tan, you make your way to the meeting room. Every step along the nylon carpeted path, you sink a little lower. This is a familiar feeling – not one of dread, that would be to exaggerate. No, this is more a blurred and indistinct sadness, a muffled cry for help you know will be stifled as soon as you get down to the business of the day. There’s nothing essentially wrong with these meetings. They come. They linger a bit too long but go away soon enough in the scheme of things. You like most of the people there: decent, honest people who seem committed to the cause, if somewhat marked by the organisation’s inevitable traces of weariness. It’s good to catch up and find out what people are up to. It’s good to hear that you seem to be doing well enough as an organisation to survive another year or so, at least.

Something is missing though. You usually pay no attention to these feelings of uneasiness or unhappiness, or at least push them aside, allowing everyday work to take over. But today is different. Today you pay attention to how you feel at work, to how you respond to the organisation’s routines, its habits. As the meeting enters its second hour, you notice how frustrated you are beginning to feel with the seemingly pointless procedural pontifications. The occasional pitter-patter of drizzle on the windows seems symbolically apt: this meeting is so flat that nature itself can’t even be bothered to give us some proper weather. You are suddenly angry with people’s seemingly endless capacity for back-biting and back-covering. With the comfortable mediocrity of some of the contributions. With the flat fatalism. ‘Such and such issue will never change. We’ve been trying for three millennia.’ ‘That X, Y or Z department or organisation, always stopping us doing good things.’ ‘What does this have to do with the organisation’s mission and values?’ This is not organisational failure, as much as organisational drift.

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Figure 1 A typical meeting?

Out of nowhere you jump to your feet, the chair clattering to the floor behind you. This is it. The moment. You’re going to appeal to people’s sense of purpose, why some of them started this organisation in the first place. Stop moaning and start getting creative. ‘Excuse me, sorry, that was a bit dramatic, I just really need the loo,’ you say as you excuse yourself and leave the room. Not the time. Not ready yet. You feel like you have yet to make proper sense of your feelings and of what could be done better around the place. You know you would like a different approach to leadership but this concept seems imprecise. You need to reflect more, to talk more to colleagues and come back with some more developed thinking. You know the organisation needs more and better leadership, but what does leadership mean, in general as well as within the voluntary sector? Time for some answers, or if not answers at least some more refined questions!

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Figure 2 There are many theories of leadership, management and related ideas

Most of us will be familiar with some of the above feelings that our organisations or teams could be achieving so much more given a more effective set of work practices, ideas or more inspired group of people. For many people, leadership seems to answer this call.

Pulling us in through our heartstrings, leadership is an alluring and emotive idea, something that seems to appeal to us beyond our more rational training in organisational ideas and language. Leadership seduces with promises beyond the mundane, or even tangible. Perhaps leadership is as much a feeling as it is a concept: a feeling that a group with an important idea or purpose has momentum, is lifted beyond the ordinary limitations one finds in organisations and societies. Perhaps leadership is better spoken of in poetry rather than prose, as artwork rather than work of science.

It may not be possible to finally know or master leadership, but that does not mean that it is not worth the attempt. On the contrary. It is the project of pursuing leadership, not its final capture, that is of most value to voluntary organisations. There is a great energy and possibility invested by people in leadership that simply does not exist to the same extent within related but alternative organising concepts – management, strategy, influencing, networking, communicating, and so on. The boundaries and possibilities of leadership are slippery. They can also be vague at times. No sooner do you think you are close to understanding the secrets of leadership, than such answers slip away. You keep pursuing answers, however, because leadership is usually equated with something significant, something that addresses the core of what we think we are about as people and organisations. This core question of ‘who are we?’ is particularly relevant to voluntary organisations facing the challenges of contemporary society.

Now that you have started to think about the distinctiveness and value of leadership, you will move on to think about the difference between leadership and management.