Leadership style

I interviewed ten social sector leaders to discover how they go about bringing out the best in the people who work with them, and whether it has any connection to how teachers bring out the best in their students. I’m breaking down my findings into bite-size bits.  Here’s a bit.


So, what’s the best style to adopt as a leader?

Many answers centred around adopting a coaching approach: asking open questions, being collaborative, and allowing people to learn by doing in a safe and guided way. Ruth Marvel explains, “By asking good questions somebody can effectively come to their own conclusion about the right answer. It’s a much more powerful and stronger way of helping someone than to come to the right answer for them.”

It’s also crucial to lead by example. This is particularly true for social sector leaders working in values-based organisations: you’re going to come across inauthentic if you don’t. But if you do, it’s one of the best ways to inspire and motivate others. As Dame Mary Marsh says, “I think if you’re going to have expectations of other people, there’s just no integrity to it if you don’t hold yourself to the same.”

But you also have to be clear. Create the structure and boundaries needed for the team, or the project, or the individual, or the organisation to succeed. And you also have to be authoritative. Which is obviously different to being authoritarian. It doesn’t mean you have to know all the answers, but it does mean you have to make reasoned, timely decisions and hold yourself and others to account. I like the clarity with which Tom Bewick says: “Hire the right people. Leave them alone to perform. Hold them to account when they don’t.”

Saying all that, the most important thing to be is flexible. Sometimes you’re going to have to switch up from being a facilitator to being a task-master. Ruth Campbell comments, “It depends on the context. In challenging situations where a command and control style is required I can do this. In learning situations I can be a coach and guide. In either situation I aim to inspire people to do their best and motivate people by demonstrating my own energy and commitment.”

Sometimes you’ll need to close down the options, and other times you’re going to have to swing the project door wide open. The key is being able to read people— their needs and their current capacity — and to read situations—both what is happening right now and what the future scenarios might be. If you can do those things—have empathy and understanding for those you are leading, as well as the space and foresight to anticipate what is coming—you will be able to adapt your leadership style appropriately. It means you can support your team well, and can keep the organisation on track for having the most positive impact it can.

Does this have anything to do with pedagogy and good teaching?

I’d say yes. Yes it does. In fact, all aspects of leadership styles covered here would be front and centre of being a good teacher too. And a good parent. And human. I suppose what I take from this is: it’s not rocket science, this stuff. But these aspects of leadership are all skills that need time and energy invested in them—we’re not born with them. None of the social sector leaders I spoke to was given anything much in the way of leadership or management training early on in their careers. Perhaps this is because the social sector is particularly time-poor and impact-focused and it’s easy to put our own needs to develop and hone these sorts of skills to one side. Teachers get to practise these day in, day out, right from the start. That’s a luxury. But also essential—it’s a survival tactic.

Given the limited time and resources available, what could social sector organisations do to enable their employees, however junior, to develop and practise (and praise) these skills too?

I’ve got some thoughts, but in the spirit of good teaching/coaching practice, I’m going to leave you to find your own answers… #homework

2 thoughts on “Leadership style

  1. We’ve recently been finding WhatsApp groups helpful in creating team glue, and much better ways of harnessing collective knowledge. I’ve just picked up from a colleague outside my organisation an idea around using WhatsApp to promote reflection, using great questions. I’m going to add these to my approach of using reflection questions with colleagues I line manage / coach.


    1. Hi Lorna. This is fascinating! What a great idea. I love how you adapt what’s used often for personal, non-work stuff and transform it into a fun way to glue the team together. Such a neat tip!


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