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Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations
Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations

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2 Leadership and identity

It is often difficult to change how we view leadership in practice because of what we refer to as identity. Over the years we have been informally trained to think of leadership as residing in single leaders, rather than as a practice built between people in collaborative ways.

In this section, we will provide our definition of identity, before moving on to discuss how identity informs all kinds of leadership work within voluntary organisations.

In this course you will see identity as something that can be created yourself but also as something that is imposed upon you by social and political norms. Identity is how you think of yourself and how others think of you. Identities can act as a kind of lens that enables certain types of leadership thinking and practice while restricting others. Identity is therefore very important for leadership practice, as it acts as a filter for the kinds of work we regard as legitimate leadership practice.

More than many other sectors, voluntary organisations draw on a number of different identities. Most voluntary organisations are an eclectic mix of volunteers, paid staff, professional experts and supportive partners. Each decision and practice embarked upon by these people further builds the identity of the organisation.

The following activity serves to draw out what we mean by identity.

Activity 1 Ellen’s story reconsidered

Timing: Allow about 25 minutes

Re-listen to this week’s extract from Ellen’s story. Remember that identity is comprised of how people think of themselves, of what they think makes them what they are – at work, at home, in relation to their communities, their beliefs and so on.

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Spend 10 minutes making notes of the various ways in which you could describe Ellen’s identity.

Now spend 15 minutes thinking about what kind of things these various identities enable and what they restrict: how does Ellen’s identity shape her particular view of what needs to be done at Family Time?

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Here are the different identities we drew from the extract of Ellen’s story.

Ellen is portrayed as a children’s services professional. The way she thinks and sees the world is strongly informed by the body of legislation, regulation, evidence and practices amassed in the world of social work. These are manifested in processes to be followed in relation to families with problems and in the expectations she has of those who work for her.

Ellen is someone who is a committed member of a local community. Her civic identity is apparent in the fact that she appreciated the informal ties and some of the strengths of the informal ways in which Family Time works. It is often difficult to draw on such informal and intangible ties from the more constrained identity of a children’s services professional.

Ellen is someone who is a family member. She takes her role as a parent seriously. Ellen cannot help but see the world through this lens – her emotional awareness and sensitivity towards suffering makes sure of that.

Ellen is political. By political we mean that she recognises the importance of organising and progressing coalitions of support among diverse groups of people. She has developed this pragmatic identity through her years of trying to enact change in a democratically mandated organisation (local government).

Ellen is also a woman. Now, this does not mean that she is not masculine (rather than male) in her approach to leadership: bossy, very rational, very assertive, and so on. But from what we can see of her narrative, Ellen is more open and inquisitive than merely being a masculine stereotype – she hopes to learn a lot from her current staff, rather than assuming that one leadership practice from her local authority will transfer straight across to her new context.