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:
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!
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.
First, try the following activity to reflect on your existing views on leadership and management.
In the box below, write down some words that you would associate with (a) leadership and (b) management.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Leadership in the voluntary sector comes with its own specific challenges. Here are some reasons why leadership is particularly relevant for the voluntary sector:
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
Make sure you title the post with the week number and the number of this activity, Week 1 Activity 2
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.
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:
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.’
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.
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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This free course was written by Owain Smolović Jones and Carol Jacklin-Jarvis.
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