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.


When people train to be teachers, they often have to fill in a reflective journal, with questions like these. When I was training to be a teacher, it was one of the most useful learning tools of all. To be forced have the chance to stop and think on what I’d been doing—it was invaluable.

Leaders should be doing the same. Some are. Some have coaches who ask these sorts of questions to them. There are different lists out there. Three questions, tough questions, three more questions. Based on the findings from the interviews, I’m suggesting five, and I would highly, highly recommend regularly (= each month), jotting down your answers somewhere, somewhere near where you jotted down your answers the last time, so you can look back. Blog, notebook, napkin—whatever you like.

  1. What style of leadership have I been using most recently (coaching, directive, flexible, firm etc)? How has it been working?
  2. How has my time been divided between my own work, talking to my team (individually and together), meeting with others? Does anything need to change?
  3. What are the strengths and attitudes that I admire? How do these map onto my team at the moment?
  4. What do I want to see more of? How do people know I want more of it? How can I encourage it?
  5. What have I been avoiding? What’s one thing I can do today about it?


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.


What do you mean by scaffolding?

Lev Vygotsky was a developmental psychologist who came up with a very useful pedagogical theory called the Zone of Proximal Development. It is a method of stretching students appropriately, so that they can grown in their knowledge, understanding and independence, at a pace that is right for them. For it to work well, teachers need to be aware of the level at which the student is working, and a sense of where they can get to next, and “scaffold” support for them to get there. Once they are there, the teacher scaffolds again to help them get further.

You can see why this might be useful in organisations too. Dame Mary Marsh calls it “absolutely crucial.” Pretty much everyone agreed.

  • it keeps people engaged
  • it provides constant development and learning opportunities that
  • it creates a safe space in which people are encouraged to make mistakes and to learn from them 
  • it doesn’t just have to be done by a line manager: buddy and peer-support systems are alternative ways to scaffold too

But it also comes with warnings: “Different people in terms of scaffolding learning have different stretch,” says Rashid Iqbal. So:

  • you can’t build the same scaffolding for everyone, or for the same person all the time
  • it’s also important to keep an individual’s development in line with the needs of the organisation too, so the ideal would be to map individual’s growth opportunities onto organisational strategy.

So how do I do it?

Scaffolding has underlying assumptions—namely that you know the level that the person is working at, you have high expectations of what they can do, and that they have the will and the bandwidth to learn and develop and stretch. Not all of these are true all of the time. And if you’re not sure, ask.

  • Discover what they are doing well
    • What do you feel as though you are achieving?
    • What are you excited by or proud of right now?
  • Discover their current willingness or ability to stretch
    • How are you feeling about the workload and your focus? Are you happy to keep going as you are?
    • What would you like to be doing? What would you like to learn? What skills or approaches would you like to take up?
  • Discover what sort of scaffolding you should offer, and for how long
    • What support do you need to help get to that level?
    • How can I best help you get there?
    • When do you want to start, and when should we check in again?

Ruth Campbell

Ruth began her career as a community activist and gained experience in charities, Scottish Government and local government before founding Comas, a social innovation charity. Comas has pioneered work with people recovering from addiction to prevent relapse and recycling through treatment in the award winning Serenity Café project.

Ruth has steered Comas through a period of growth in which several areas of development became national resources and the charity set new goals for working on tackling poverty, with a challenging, goal oriented approach to making every household in one community better off. Ruth has used her different career experiences for her own learning, watching those around her, and attending some training.

In one to three sentences, describe your leadership style when it comes to supporting others.

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.

How has your style changed since you began leading and supporting others? Which techniques and approaches have you taken up, and which have you discarded?

Really it is the context and the people that has informed the style. The demands of a social enterprise requiring daily operational development and management over 7 days is very different from the style required in the civil service or local authority. People’s motivation and expectation of their leaders is different in different settings. In our organisation we also lead the community, many of whom are vulnerable and have difficult responses to some aspects of leadership. The critical point is, the style has to bend to the situation and the people being led, all the time. Anyone who has a fixed style wouldn’t achieve much.

How would you define the purpose of supporting staff in their roles?

The ultimate purpose is that we are all tools to achieve a social impact and make a difference in the lives of vulnerable people. The support to staff is to enable them to do that to the best of their ability and within the resources available. But support also serves to glue the team together, enhance our enjoyment of our challenge, build our ethos and energise us all – we aim to support people in immensely difficult life situations, so to an extent we also have to model that support with each other in our team, and to that end one of the purposes of support is to create reciprocity – I need their support too!

How do you set expectations?


What approaches do you find particularly successful when managing or supporting others? Is there a difference between how you help teams or groups, and how you work with individuals?

Straightforward and bullshit-free. Add fun and humour with groups. Add cuddles for individuals.

In an ideal world, with fewer deadlines and meetings and other pressures, how would you like to bring out the best in your team?

I’d add some deadlines and meetings. It’s not the fact of them that’s the problem, it’s how you do them.

Reflecting on Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, what opportunities are there for you “scaffold” growth and development amongst your teams? What challenges are there?

In our organisation the scaffolding hits you on the head and because things are so dynamic, it never goes away. Even people who have been here for years are always learning something new. We don’t really do comfort zones, but if you have mastered something you will be left to get on with that autonomously.

We have a high degree of conscious learning in our organisation: we are an innovation organisation, so we are always learning as we go; we work with people in early recovery whose brains are still adjusting to sobriety, so we are always adjusting to ‘wonky learners’ and many of our staff are in recovery – we have to create a lot of frameworks to assist learning; we have an internship programme and are conscious of the cognitive overload that comes with being thrust into a new environment. All in all, we make learning, ideas sharing and feedback very up front, direct (rather than subtle) and, because it is all around us all the time, compulsory. People who get that we are all learning all the time and find this stimulating, love it. People who don’t really want to learn, hate it and don’t last long.

Paolo Freire was a proponent of a co-designed approach to education. To what extend do you involve your team in the design of a project that they are working on? What are the benefits and limitations of this approach?

We are community development workers so we have Freire in our DNA. However, I would say that this style suits people who want this. Some people – for example staff and volunteers in the cafe enterprise, have over-taxed cognitive bandwidth because of all the other life stuff they are coping with. They do want to be told what to do and have the comfort of defined roles and tasks.

Angela Duckworth has developed a system for tracking character strengths. In your opinion, how important are these strengths or soft skills? Do you have any approaches or processes for recognising them in your organisation? When is it useful, and when is it not?

I really like this theory and I think there is a lot to work with in it. It is particularly relevant for our community members as well as our team. However, in as much as character can be developed, it can also be warped by situations, circumstances and faulty brain wiring/chemistry and the labile nature of character is the interesting thing. Essentially, people are fascinating and if we are very lucky we can create an environment where this fascination is in constant circulation. Because we deal with personal development for the individuals in our communities we can indulge this fascination all the time and it naturally expresses itself in our dialogue with the community and with each other as we try to create self-knowledge.

What is the link, if any, between well-supported teams and the impact that the organisation has?

The knee-jerk reaction is to say ‘huge’, but I also think that people with a lucky bundle of strong character, vision and skill can transcend fragmented and dysfunctional teams to have an impact – think of local authorities and the occasional individual you meet who refuses to be held back by the system and does great things anyway. A well supported team would always be the ideal, but not having it doesn’t always mean there will be less impact. In fact, I have come across supported and supportive teams who stay so far within their comfort zone they cease to have impact or adapt to their environment; and also come across teams that focus so much on support for each other this has become their purpose—demands from external forces to evidence a wider impact are treated as a threat.

How would you define ‘teacher’ or ‘educator’?

Teacher: provide the objective, show, tell, review and assess; Educator: facilitate goal setting, enable, empower and make wisdom and experience accessible on demand.

How would you define a ‘leader’?

Someone people love to collaborate with, emulate, follow, argue with and challenge. Someone who stirs energy, thinking, passion and mission.