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Leadership from the top, bottom, and across the table

This blog is written by Dr Carol Jacklin-Jarvis, Director of the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership in the Faculty of Business and Law at The Open University. Here, she blogs about the importance of collaborative leadership for the voluntary sector.

Why might a collaborative approach to leadership have a particular resonance for the voluntary sector? 

As I am currently writing course material for students on the potential (and pitfalls) of collaborative leadership, it is perhaps inevitable that I am asking myself this question.  My reading of collaborative leadership is that it is not a style of leadership but rather a set of ideas that focus on three things.  First that leadership may be shared, carried out simultaneously by more than one person.  Second that leadership happens through the processes of interaction between people, rather than through the skills or personality of an individual.  Third, that leadership in our contemporary world is frequently concerned with reaching across boundaries – of department, profession, organisation and sector.  So, why do I think these ideas are particularly pertinent for contemporary voluntary organisations?

Arguably, the more traditional focus of leadership studies on leadership-as-person is well and truly alive in the sector.  There are good reasons for this.  Being entirely practical, many voluntary organisations are reliant on key individuals – a founder, lone manager, or small group of activists, who grow and sustain a voluntary group at personal cost.  However, there is also a continuing focus on individuals in the voluntary sector press, profiles of movers and shakers, in much larger organisations.  This emphasis perhaps masks the leadership that comes from different directions in an organisation.  In a sector that rightly values inclusivity and participation, it would be great to read more accounts of the ways in which voluntary organisations are shaped and influenced by people from all levels of an organisation – from the bottom of the table as well as the top.  Clearly, many newer forms of social action demonstrate this bottom-up leadership.  But collaborative leadership theories show how even in more traditional organisations, the day-to-day interactions of organisational life shape the organisation’s direction of travel, and bring people on board with that direction – or not.

Structurally, voluntary organisations are entirely dependent on leadership that is collaborative or shared, not least because of their specific form of governance.  Trustee boards are an example of how leadership is shared between individuals, not simply because of their titles or skills, but more fundamentally because of the processes of negotiation, discussion, questioning, and decision-making that send the organisation in one direction or another.  Extending the earlier metaphor, leadership is here across the table.  It doesn’t lie with one individual, but rather in the to-and-fro of their interactions.  Similarly the relationship between chief exec and chair is an example of shared leadership, in which relational interactions are central to their mutual and shared influence.

Finally, for many voluntary organisations in contemporary society, working across boundaries is central to achieving their mission.  Whether they are working in flood management, children’s services, or developing a sense of place, moving this work forward involves continual formal and informal interactions with organisations in and beyond the sector.

For all of these reasons, it’s important that we explore how collaborative leadership actually happens in and between voluntary organisations, endeavouring to understand how everyday interactions between people move organisations in one direction or another.  However, there’s also a danger that we simply transfer our ‘romance’ with individual leadership with a ‘romance’ with collaborative leadership.  So, we also need to take the insights of research that collaborative leadership is fraught with tensions into the voluntary sector context. 

22nd August 2017

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