Some personal reflections on leadership in the voluntary sector

Chris Mould

I’ve been involved in the leadership of the Trussell Trust since 2004. Back then it was a small, local, family-founded charity running a few community based projects to tackle poverty and exclusion. Nine years on, the Guardian Newspaper described it this week as the UK’s biggest voluntary food aid network and last month the Trussell Trust was voted ‘Britain’s Most Admired Charity 2013’ by charity and not-for-profit CEOs across the UK.  I was recently invited to reflect on the principles of leadership. What follows is an extract from a longer article to be published in 2014.

In January 2004 the Trussell Trust trustees held their annual vision day. We decided then that if our foodbank project in Salisbury was needed in Salisbury – as evaluation feedback clearly told us it was – every town and community in the UK should have one.  Where we had just one foodbank, we saw a need for at least seven hundred. Where we were operating in just one provincial city, we saw a need to be operating UK-wide.  By the summer of 2013 the Trussell Trust had launched over 370 foodbanks and the landscape of awareness of food poverty has changed completely in less than ten years.

In my mind good leaders embody what they are about: they live it out and whatever angle you probe them from, you should find the same strengths at the fore.  There can be no dissonance between what you say and how you live it out. Good leaders have strong values and they’ve thought about those values deeply. They know how their values apply in all sorts of contexts: making decisions about money; assessing strategic business opportunities; deciding whom their organisation should partner with; dealing with challenging people problems.

Knowing clearly where you want to get to and getting up every morning with that goal in mind are qualities in leaders who persist, who demonstrate resilience, and these are very helpful qualities worth consciously nurturing. I like to partner this idea of persistence with something that might seem contradictory: a taste for emergence; spotting an opportunity when it comes along and being flexible enough to take it before it is too late. In any business on the edge, where finance is uncertain and political context can so easily move the goal posts, comfort with emergence is immensely useful. It is particularly so when your commitment to the long term goal drives everything, because then you are better able to use emergent opportunity to serve that goal and better able to spot when an opportunity is actually nothing more than a distraction in disguise.

Individuals with drive are vital to success. But the reality of enduring success is always rooted in team work. More so than a leader would deep down like to acknowledge, it is the team that gets an organisation where it needs to get to. Again, consciously stating to themselves, and to the world at large, the importance of each individual’s contribution helps a leader get the balance right.

Leaders with staying power stay in touch. However frenetic the pace and however rapid the growth, listening to clients, going to where the job’s being done and listening to the people doing it, has to be given priority.  Again intentionality makes the difference. Good leaders block that time out in their diaries. Good leaders know they have to give themselves the chance to be brought down to earth! And they know they have to do it regularly. The Trussell Trust has grown thirteen fold in the last six years. Growth doesn’t provide an excuse. It makes it all the more important to spend time listening and observing.

It may be self-awareness, it may be humility. Enduring in leadership long term will require that you consciously develop both qualities. They are the ground on which the other ingredients flourish.  Times are tough in the UK and in Europe. Recession and austerity continue to take their toll. These realities have sharpened the challenge for leaders but for me they don’t change the priorities. Honing the personal qualities of leadership is where the difference between success and failure will always reside.

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