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  • Marika Kontellis

Does social sector leadership need to shift as well?

Whilst adaptive work suggests that solutions for making changes of this magnitude resides in employees at all levels, the difficulty in this sector is that they employees often, and rightfully, retain a strong sense of identity with the client. This is made worse by that fact that for many years there has been a real focus on compliance. Government sets standards and organisations needed to achieve these in order to retain their funding. This, aside from stifling innovation and creativity, has led to a very hierarchical and disempowering work environment, one in which people are taught and encouraged to take matters “upstream”. Mistakes are not seen as learning opportunities and with little reason or provocation, matters are escalated to management for resolution.

However, we also know that in order to secure long term change, the leader needs to create an environment where adaptive challenges are identified and addressed. This requires not only a free flow of information from all levels, but resistance on the part of managers to make decisions for others. Thus, whilst there is a need for adaptive change, this often does not occur due to the manner in which organisations are structured and thinking is constrained.

One of the fundamental bases of social conscience and transformation is that of hope. The attraction for many in the sector is based on the premise that personal contributions will make a difference. Leaders need to ensure that they are creating a vision that whilst “socially based” and able to capture the emotional energy that motivates people, is also about clarifying the purpose of what is required, making behaviours congruent with beliefs and aligning procedures with principles, roles and goals.

Whilst somewhat of a generalisation, in the past, people working within this industry had a deep social conscience, firm views on how they perceive the world, and who readily and strongly identified with a social justice framework. This in fact was relatively easy to measure and understand given the environment within which they worked (activity-based). Is this all about to change? Does leadership need to shift to take account of and accommodate the changes? It is hard to say but undoubtedly if organisations need to shift, so too will leadership but does it mean an entire change or could it simply be a change to where leadership occurs?

There is considerable (too much!) literature on leadership theories, concepts, traits, functions and other characteristics of the leader. There are not many that have attempted or discussed the locus of this leadership, which may well be worthy of further thought given its potential application in the social sector at this time of change. In simple terms, leadership that is based on the notion of partnership socialism, implies that whilst the leader “conveys leadership”, its impact is magnified when it is located at the level of the employee.

Partnership socialism as a concept is an amalgam of leadership theory but at its core is the premise that the employee needs to view themselves as a partner, an owner of both the business and the outcome. It has less to do with servitude and more to do with how they see themselves as an owner.

As a leader attempting to wrestle with the changes, remember that what you know and what you have done before is highly valued. New entrants into the market (and there will be plenty) don’t have the same to fall back upon. However, remember that the basic motivations of people and also how work is done has de-constructed our society. Remember, your organisation is part of society and that in many ways whilst capitalism demands change and innovation, this in itself is “creative destruction” – destroying everything in order to innovate, including previous innovations, cultures, customs and values. This has the ability to constantly redefine the “community at work” by its requirement to respond to, and be modified by pressures in the “community outside work”, yet these are the cultures, customs and values that got you there in the first place.

Don’t be led astray.


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