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Week 1 Thinking leadership

Introduction

Welcome to Week 1 of this five-week course.

This week reflects on different views of leadership, especially in relation to its frequent comparator: management. You will consider the difference between the two approaches, see how they work in practice, and consider why leadership is particularly relevant for the voluntary sector. As the week finishes, we will offer our own definition of leadership, one that will stake out our position and provide you with a way of interpreting our arguments as the course unfolds.

After competing this week we hope that you will be able to:

  • differentiate between leadership and management
  • offer an account of the appropriateness and strengths of both a management and a leadership approach
  • notice examples of leadership and management in your own organisation
  • offer a critique of others’ definitions and accounts of leadership (starting with ours!)
  • make a case for the significance of leadership for the voluntary sector.

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.

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!

Described image
Figure 1 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.

Leadership is an alluring and emotive idea, something that goes beyond more rational training in organisational ideas and language. Leadership seduces with promises beyond the mundane, or even the 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 and is lifted beyond the ordinary limitations found in organisations and societies. Perhaps leadership is better spoken of in poetry rather than prose, as artwork rather than as a 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.

2 Leadership and management: what's the difference?

First, try the following activity to reflect on your existing views on leadership and management.

Activity 1 Your views of leadership and management

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

In the box below, write down some words that you would associate with (a) leadership and (b) management. 

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Comment

Did you find that you could make a clear distinction between leadership on the one hand and management on the other? Or did you find you wrote similar or overlapping terms? You may have found that the terms you used to describe management were more operational and those to describe leadership got more at the complexity and messiness of organisations and people.

Leadership is often characterised as contemporary, alluring and dynamic, as distinct from the predictability of management techniques. This is unfair, as management can often be innovative, whereas leadership can be a code word for the very old-fashioned idea of ‘defer to the person in charge’. That said, it is our case that leadership does indeed offer something distinctive to management. If management seeks to make work more predictable and efficient, leadership disrupts, bringing out new issues and ideas.

This course’s position on leadership and management

As a way of differentiating between management and leadership, this course adopts a similar position to that offered by leadership scholar Keith Grint (2005). Grint approaches management and leadership from the perspective of problems rather than the personal qualities of practitioners. He sees these concepts in terms of the issues and challenges faced by organisations, rather than the personal qualities of employees. This is an important shift in thinking because it suggests that a particular issue exists because people think and practise the issue into being, not because the issue really exists like that in the first place.

Here is an example. A new chief executive is appointed to a charity that is facing falling private donations and as a result it is becoming more reliant on alternative sources of income, specifically government grants and large sponsorship or partnership deals with businesses. So what is the problem here? A managerial way of thinking about the problem might focus on the processes and systems of fundraising: database management, methods of collecting money and marketing channels. A leadership approach might ask some more fundamental questions about the meaning of the organisation – perhaps people are giving less because the organisation’s purpose is not as important anymore?

For Grint, management ‘tames’ problems through applying technical thinking, making problems less intimidating, easier to think about and to tackle. It involves working with systems, policies, guidelines and rules to make life more manageable (for want of a better word).

Leadership, in contrast, makes problems more ‘wicked’. It approaches a problem that may at first glance seem relatively straightforward but recast that problem as something much more fundamental. A problem with falling donations, for example, could be one indication amongst others, of an organisation that needs to rethink its purpose. Leadership tends to approach problems as if they are complex and difficult, requiring the sustained efforts of a diverse group of people. Leadership, then, can be thought of as a disruptive force within organisations, something that asks the awkward questions and leads others into fresh thinking that was previously off-limits. It is also something that confronts the status quo, seeking conflictual, if participative debate and discussion about what matters for organisations and the people they serve.

Please watch the following video, where the Director of the OU’s Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership, Siv Vangen, discusses what leadership can offer voluntary organisations.

Download this video clip.Video player: dlvo_1_video_week1_interview_vangen.mp4
Skip transcript

Transcript

SIV VANGEN:
In the UK, at any rate, leadership in the voluntary sector is typically about leading on some of the really big challenging issues for society. So those kind of issues might be around children in poverty. It might be about addiction. It might be about homelessness. A whole range of issues that are really challenging to tackle.
And we tend to talk about these issues as wicked issues. They are wicked because it's not easy to define them. They have multiple causes. And it's typically not easy to see whether they can be resolved, or they may not even be resolvable at all.
So in this sense, leadership is very much about leading in the public sphere. It might include campaigning. It might include bringing those issues to the attention of the public. But of course, whether leadership is about wicked issues or more pleasant issues such as using art and engaging people in sport or doing a whole range of creative activities to build communities, for example, leadership in the voluntary sector is also about leadership within organisations.
And typically in the voluntary sector, organisations have grown from that individual trying to start up, trying to address something that they are really passionate about. And so typically an organisation grows out of a very small group of individuals working together. And so what that means is that growth become a leadership issue. And thinking about how to develop staff, how to nurture staff, and how to build leadership capacity within an organisation becomes an issue.
So if you're thinking about developing a leadership capacity within an organisation, it might be helpful to think about that in terms of a practice, a practice that a number of individuals participate in. So that could be trustees, it could be volunteers. It could be staff and the manager herself, for example. But it's thinking about how leadership is not associated with one individual, but rather something that everyone in the organization can engage in, and everybody can participate and make things happen.
End transcript
 
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Siv flags up in the video the proposition that leadership is best thought of as linked to major, wicked problems, and that voluntary organisations are accustomed to such problems. Key in facing such problems, Siv states, is approaching leadership as a practice that is shared between people in organisations and across organisations. Thinking of leadership in this way – rather than being all about the characteristics of individual leaders – is something that we will develop throughout the course.

In reality, organisations need a mix of leadership and management. They also need professionals, experts in their field, to execute strategy and to innovate. Finally, they all need good administrative systems that help, rather than hinder, progress . Having worked with the conceptualisation of leadership and management, the course now turns to consider how you might differentiate between the two in practice.

3 Leadership and management in practice

Management offers a complicated but also comforting language and set of techniques. A consequence of this is that when faced with problems, the default position of managers tends to be to try to ‘tame’ problems with management tools (Carroll and Levy, 2008). Leadership, on the other hand, can seem more mysterious and tougher.

Such associations with leadership fit nicely with findings of a research project that course author Owain is involved with (Carroll et al., 2012), which tries to understand the mindsets of people as they proceed through leadership development programmes designed to be critical and collaborative. As people engage with leadership in more critical ways, they have to contend with four types of mindset that feel, initially at least, unusual, or even foreign, to more regularised ways of thinking and working.

  • Partiality: as leadership is concerned with exploring the unknown dimensions of problems, people become accustomed to working under conditions of uncertainty.
  • Dissipation: as previously held assumptions are challenged by colleagues in leadership, people become better at working with knowledge that seems to move and become less clear at times, as participants explore its nuances and complexities.
  • Disruption: good leadership does disrupt the everyday routines of people in their work. It is confrontational and conflictual in positive, generative ways – because conflict points at what matters to people and it stops complacent thinking and habits.
  • Sensation: leadership involves a high degree of bodily and emotional awareness. It can feel awkward, thrilling, frustrating, maddening, dangerous, illicit, inspiring, and more. Leadership involves paying attention to how we feel as well as how we think.

Getting to leadership and staying with leadership can be hard work, but can also hold great promise: of more meaningful, participative, caring and energetic work around issues that matter. Having considered leadership in practice, the course now moves on to consider the specific relevance of leadership for voluntary organisations.

4 Why is leadership relevant for the voluntary sector?

Leadership in the voluntary sector comes with its own specific challenges. Here are some reasons why leadership is particularly relevant for the voluntary sector:

  • Working together: most voluntary organisations start as the result of a passion held by an individual or small group of people. If this passion starts to gather momentum and interest, small organisations can become victims of their own success. They grow: they accumulate funds, employees, volunteers and users. Problems become more difficult and people have to find new ways of working together.
  • Identity and ethics: the issue of a distinctive identity for the voluntary sector and its organisations remains an important one. As organisations engage more in partnership working – with business and government – it is perhaps only natural that a certain amount of the initial purpose of the organisation, its reason for being, may become more opaque. Good leadership will help organisations stay in touch with – and adapt – their fundamental reasons for being.
  • Independence: partnerships can also encourage dependency, particularly when partners bring crucial funding to the table. This raises the question as to how leadership maintains independence whilst building partnership.
  • Energetic campaigning: a crucial aspect of many voluntary organisations is their campaigning work. Successful campaigns involve exciting one-off ideas but a fair amount of resilient team graft is also needed to sustain any campaign. Leadership helps keep people alert, fosters innovation but also keeps people going through the tough days as well as the good days.
  • Online dynamics: the online revolution has transformed the way we live our lives and interact. Voluntary organisations are no different. Online platforms mean that leadership can spring up from unusual and unexpected sources. Team working often now also happens online, in discussion forums and via social media. It may also provide new opportunities for members, volunteers and other stakeholders to be involved in decision making, for example, the campaigning organisation 38 Degrees consults its members on what campaigns it should undertake.

Activity 2 How people in your organisiation talk about leadership

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

This week, spend some time paying attention to what people talk about and how people talk within your organisation. Write a concise account of your views and experiences in your learning journal  using the following questions to help you

  • In your view, are people in your organisation mostly engaged in leadership, management or something else?
  • What makes leadership work in your organisation?
  • Did you identify any opportunities for leadership that were not taken?

Make sure you title the post with the week number and the number of this activity, Week 1 Activity 2

Comment

You may have noticed is that leadership is, in most cases, much less common than the commonness of the word itself might suggest. People may dream of leadership but more often practise management, administration and professional work. Hopefully you spotted some opportunities where leadership might have been employed more emphatically or explicitly. Finally, you may have started to think about how you could inject a little more leadership into your place of work.

As the course moves on, we think it is important that we are up front with you about our views and definition of leadership. The next section provides a definition of leadership and a supporting argument for the relevance of that definition.

5 A definition of leadership

Here is our working definition of leadership:

Leadership is a collaborative, political and participative practice that provides direction, energy and critical engagement on issues that are made to matter.

This is a more radical way of approaching leadership with eight components:

  1. Leadership is approached as a practice rather than a set of personality characteristics. People involved in leadership ask how they can improve the practice, not refine their personal competencies.
  2. Leadership is collaborative because it seeks to bring diverse groups of people together.
  3. Leadership is political because it works with people’s values, beliefs and commitments.
  4. Leadership is participative because it provides a (conflictual and confrontational) arena within which people debate and challenge one another.
  5. Of course, leadership must provide direction to a group or organisation. Providing direction can sit in tension with democratic practice because they seem to prioritise different things. But it is precisely that tension between engagement but also moving forward in a purposeful way that is the source of much of the energy of leadership (Smolović Jones et al, 2016).
  6. Energy is our sixth dimension of leadership: leadership should provide excitement and momentum, a sense that you are together addressing matters of significance
  7. Good leadership has to be critical. By critical we mean engaging with ideas and propositions with a curious and questioning mindset.
  8. Finally, leadership is about making issues matter. Note the active sense of this last sentence – it is our case that issues do not pre-exist leadership: leadership makes issues matter because it brings certain things to prominence.

Activity 3 Definitions of leadership

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

This week we provided our definition of leadership as: ‘Leadership is a collaborative, political and participative practice that provides direction, energy and critical engagement on issues that are made to matter.’

  1. Go to the Discussion forum thread for this activity, and post a brief critique of our definition of leadership. The following questions may help get you started:
    • Is our definition of leadership something you can sign up to or do you see some problems with our definition?
    • Have we undersold a particular dimension of leadership or over-stated something?
  2. Post your own definition of leadership.
  3. Comment on at least two other people’s posts to keep the discussion flowing.

6 Key practice: observation

This week we asked you to pay attention to the interactions and dynamics within your organisation and we can call this kind of activity observation. Observation is a crucial but under-utilised organisational practice. Contrary to what you might think, observation does not mean that all opinions and commitments must be set to one side in order to be neutral. It is in fact impossible to be completely neutral in observation work. Rather, we should try to be aware of our own subjective biases and try our best to see the scene from a different perspective.

Curiously, not many people in leadership take the time to observe the world around them. They are too busy getting caught up in the day-to-day busyness of work. That is a shame because we can carry around with us all kinds of assumptions that prove to be incorrect.

Observation does not mean that you try to remove all subjective feeling. On the contrary, you should pay close attention to how certain events, behaviours or interactions make you feel. Feelings are important clues as to what might be going well, or not, within an organisation.

Summary of Week 1

This week was dedicated to defining and exploring the value of leadership. We discussed how leadership can be differentiated from management and offered our own definition of leadership, which, as with everything in this course, is of course open to debate and challenge. You started to use the discussion forum and learning journal - vital parts of this course which relies on interaction and active participation. Finally, we underlined the purpose of observation in leadership for your practice. Observation is a great overlooked dimension of leadership, usually because people think of it as quite a passive activity but paying attention to the dynamics of organisation is crucial to understanding how to engage positively with others.

Next week, the course moves on to consider leadership as embodied in particular people: the most common way of approaching leadership and a perspective that holds significant pitfalls for organisations, as well as possibilities.

You can now go to Week 2.

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References

Carroll, B. and Levy, L. (2008) ‘Defaulting to management: leadership defined by what it is not’, Organization, vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 75–96.
Carroll, B., Smolović Jones, O., Kennedy, F. and Francoeur, J. (2012) ‘Participant perspectives: constructing the experience of leadership development’, paper presented at the Developing Leadership Capacity Conference: leadership for the new times, Exeter, 28–29 June.
Grint, K. (2005) ‘Problems, problems, problems: the social construction of “leadership”’, Human Relations, vol. 58, no. 11, pp. 1467–94.
Smolović Jones, S., Smolović Jones, O., Winchester, N. and Grint, K. (2016) ‘Putting the discourse to work: on outlining a praxis of democratic leadership development’, Management Learning, vol. 47, no. 4: pp. 424–42.

Acknowledgements

This free course was written by Owain Smolović Jones and Carol Jacklin-Jarvis.

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