It ain’t what you do (it’s the way that you do it)…

There have been numerous examples in the sector media recently about bullying, inappropriate behaviour and worrying workplace behaviours within the charitable sector.  Sadly, although there does appear to have been quite a rash of such stories recently, this is not a new phenomenon.  It would appear that the charity sector has got an issue with workplace behaviours – and, frankly, leadership behaviours – that it is not fully acknowledging or addressing.

Moving in to the sector after my previous career in the Senior Civil Service, I was shocked by the behaviours I witnessed within and between different charities.  This was over ten years ago and the sector doesn’t appear to have moved on much. 

Writing about this issue may well not make me any friends amongst my peers.  Equally, I am well aware that leadership involves making some tough decisions that may well upset people affected.  I am also mindful that those in leadership roles are only human and, especially at times of pressure in what can be quite lonely roles, may not always act as well as we’d like.  I am certainly not claiming any high moral ground in terms of my own leadership.

Despite these caveats, I do think that there is a need to reflect on the recent spate of stories and to learn from them.  Comparing my experience in my earlier career with my time in the charitable sector, I have come to the conclusion that at least three issues are at play here.

Firstly, I worry that the means by which we seek to achieve our end goals are too often being overlooked or under-valued.  As charities, the ends we seek are noble ones aimed at making the world a better place.  I fear, however, that too often leaders within the sector seem to think that the means by which to achieve those noble ends are unimportant.  It seems to me that some in leadership roles take the view that it does not matter if they offend or mistreat someone if it gets the charity a step closer to delivering its mission.  That the noble goal being sought trumps how we treat people in achieving our lofty ambitions.  That can’t be right, surely?

Secondly, I continue to be struck by the relatively low investment in leadership development in the sector.  Advanced support to be a better leader, creating supportive cultures and teams too often plays second fiddle to fundraising or campaigning achievement.  This is exacerbated by funding pressures and perceptions about how charitable funds should be spent.  Leadership is not a character trait, it is about a set of behaviours and techniques that can be learned and constantly improved.  That requires time and money – but every hour and every pound spent on developing leadership will be well spent and this deserves to be better reflected in our budgets.

Finally, there are some pretty big egos in the sector!  I am sure some who know me better may well be spluttering at this point and muttering about healers healing themselves…  And they’d be right!  I know I have an undoubtedly over-inflated sense of my own self-worth.  But, I would suggest that my own ego is relatively modest in a sector that seems to attract more than its fair share of egotists.  Senior-level recruitment too often favours the eloquent advocate, the larger-than-life orator, the swashbuckling campaigner or fundraiser, rather than the team-builders, the careful strategists or the quiet momentum-builders.  That is rather strange for a sector where the oft-quoted proverb ‘If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together’ is so often heard…

The public and our stakeholders, rightly, set high standards for charities.  Those standards must apply not just to the ambition of our missions but to the values we establish and live by in working towards them.  And that starts from the top. We need to invest more in and better celebrate creating great leaders and workplaces to repay the faith the public puts in us. 

First published in Third Sector