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Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations
Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations

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6 Participative leadership practice and identity

Participative leadership practice is strongly informed by informal democratic practice. When people mention democracy, what usually springs to mind are things like television and parliamentary debates between politicians, the act of voting in elections and the rituals that accompany the tallying and reporting of results. Yet democratic practice can also be conceptualised as something with a much broader significance, as something that can permeate how you engage with your work and society.

If you boil down democracy to its core meaning you are left with something that seeks to convey a sense of relationality between people, a sense that people work out what is in the best interests of a community: how people can participate and have a say, in other words. This is underlined in a voluntary sector context by Smolović Jones et al. (2016) in relation to the voluntary sector, where they theorise a democratic form of leadership from the basis of a cross-organisational initiative between voluntary sector groups as offering a platform for a range of previously marginalised voices and presences to participate. Democracy also conveys the sense that the meaning attributed to various things (policy, practice, identity) is contested and up for grabs. For example, what does it mean for a voluntary sector organisation to enjoy independence? Independence is an important word for voluntary organisations that is sure to excite and provoke. Yet how easy is it in an interconnected world to be ever truly independent? The meaning of independence will inevitably vary depending upon who you speak to in the sector.

A room full of meeting attendees sitting in rows.
Figure 5 Participation through vote-taking

Engaging in participative leadership practice means that democracy is purposeful: not only sitting around in rooms talking. It is shaped in a way that acknowledges that organisations have to move forward, have real work to do and decisions to make. Participative leadership practice is a state of mind as well as a state of practice: it seeks to mainstream active and rich, conflictual (when necessary) practice into the everyday working of organisations.

Participative leadership practice is a way of drawing people into decisions but also into the everyday work of organisations. We outline a participative leadership practice as working along two main dimensions – identity is crucial to both.