Monday, 30 June 2014

Noisy Leadership

Are you a quiet or noisy leader? What works best? I was at one of our ACEVO regional meetings in Oxford last week, and we had a fascinating debate on this in the wake of recent controversies.

A key role for any social leader is 'speaking truth to power'. But how do you do this? There are some CEOs who believe you must never speak out in public and do all your lobbying behind closed doors. They fear that if they are publicly critical they will be cut off from access or 'got at' in some way. 

This is wrong. No politician or senior official will pay you much attention if they think you will never speak out. That would mean they can safely ignore you. They will pay attention if they think you might speak out publicly, and if they think that what they are proposing is going to be criticised in the public domain. We social leaders hold a vital weapon in our hands. The media love us and we are trusted. When a politician or government official is interviewed the public are inclined to be skeptical. When we appear, there is trust in what we say and claim. Ipsos MORI’s trust surveys (like this one usually indicate that around 15-20% of the public trust politicians, while more like 60-70% trust charities.

Being quiet, then, will not achieve what you want. Of course, the power to speak out must be used judiciously. You should be careful to modulate your criticisms with praise when it is due. Always slamming everything just doesn't work. But on occasion you must be noisy.

I'm certainly not regarded as a shrinking violet. On the Oxfam issue I have been very outspoken. Indeed my views featured in opposition to some backbench government MPs on Friday's BBC Radio 4 World at One. But I have tempered this with lots of work with government when there are issues we care about as a sector. I doubt I was asked by David Cameron to write the choice and competition report in the listening exercise because I'm a quiet leader, or to speak with him when he launched the Open Public Services White Paper because I was seen as docile.

An independent and robust civil society must not whisper but make itself heard. That is why we must avoid the temptation to keep quiet over the election period. CEOs and their trustees must determine to speak out when that is needed, and tell people if they feel they are being gagged. Lord Finkelstein, for one, as he said in Parliament last Thursday would like to hear if charities and campaigners feel gagged by the provisions of the Lobbying Act.

This may sometimes get uncomfortable. I didn't exactly enjoy the dirt heaped over me after my robust defence of professional salaries for CEOs or the sarcasm of Daily Mail columnists. But leadership is often uncomfortable. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen - as they say. And good leaders are able to juggle when backdoor diplomacy is best and when it isn't.

There are many leadership styles. As many as there are leaders I suspect. But being noisy has its place!

And on the subject of noisy leadership I guess you could add the recent example of the Prime Minister in Europe. I was interested in the interview with Jeremy Hunt MP on Today this morning. He made the point that "leadership can be lonely" and he is right. Leadership is not always about seeking or getting a consensus. Sometimes a decision needs to be taken that may not be universally popular - as we saw with the row over Junker. That may be a decision you have taken that may not be universally popular with your Board or your staff, and that's a lonely position.

I remember one of the early ACEVO posters which said (over the picture of a mountain) "it’s lonely at the top". That is exactly why an organisation like ACEVO exists; to support and advise CEOs and to provide a peer network that gives that support when difficult decisions have to be taken.

No comments: