Values, Thinking and Practice: Three steps to becoming the leader the world needs

Inequality, injustice, environmental destruction . . . things need to change in the world – that much is clear to anyone working in the NFP sector.

And to create the future we want – and need – it’s going to take leaders who are willing to step up and take on that challenge.

That’s according to a new report from the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, informed by work with more than 8,000 business and government leaders over 30 years.

The report is a call for organisations – and HR and L&D teams in particular – to step up to “lead change at the level of whole systems”.

Leadership development and HR teams play an important role in recruiting, training and rewarding individuals to succeed . . . Employees at all levels need to be equipped with the skills to not only nurture innovation and manage risk, but to transform the economic systems within which they operate, and to deliver on broader societal goals.

The Institute’s report argues that traditional leadership frameworks and approaches “do not yet acknowledge global challenges and do not equip leaders to navigate them.”

Instead, it says new leadership programs “must distinguish between ‘leader’ and ‘leadership’ development”:

The former focuses on the development of the individual, while the latter instead works to build collective capacity, considering the diversity and strengths of individuals across the organisation as a whole. Taking a multi-level approach, which embraces the capacity of individuals, organisations and wider society, can ensure that leadership is not simply seen as the preserve of a ‘heroic’ few.

Informed by CISL’s work with over 8,000 leaders around the world, the Cambridge Impact Leadership Model aims to do just that, by urging organisations to focus their leadership development programs on three key dimensions:

1. Values: Develop the values, sense of agency and worldview consistent with achieving purposeful leadership.

Good leaders have the ability to foster commitment and inspire others. And in order to achieve that, they need to have a strong connection to both personal and collective values.

That means it’s critical that leaders in your NFP understand what gives work its meaning, and are aligned in their values and purpose with the success of your organisation. And, importantly, that this success also equates to positive outcomes for both your community and the wider environment.

On top of that, leaders need to build a sense of responsibility and accountability for leading the necessary change within your organisation – and in broader society, whether in policies or in attitudes. This includes discouraging ego-driven behaviour, nurturing teamwork, and clarifying purpose and intent of individual actions.

The final piece of the ‘values’ puzzle is developing an understanding in leaders of how their worldviews, unconscious biases and assumptions influence their decision-making. Clarify how leaders in your organisation interpret important concepts like fairness, inclusion and responsibility. And help them to understand: how do those concepts shape their judgements?

2. Thinking: Develop the contextual insight, mindset and knowledge base necessary for innovating new forms of commercial and societal value.

According to the report, a key strength required by leaders is the ability to understand the changing external environment. That means developing a comfort with delving into data and trends, assessing possible risks and opportunities, and understanding changing expectations.

Next, leaders must develop the mindset to lead change in a complex system, which involves engaging in ‘big picture’ thinking, being adaptive and flexible in their thinking, and comfortably juggling the competing priorities of short-term goals within a long-term vision.

And, the report adds, constructing a solid knowledge base around innovation is also critical. This includes understanding how to innovate business models, services and processes in the interests of both your organisation and the wider community.

3. Practice: Nurture the leadership practices, specific skills, and personal resilience to experiment and deliver results in line with purpose.

The last dimension of leadership, practice, puts the previous two dimensions into action.

The report says leaders must nurture attitudes and practices like tenacity, commitment and drive – in both themselves and others – in order to drive change. On top of that, ensure your NFP’s leaders need to solicit a diverse range of perspectives, foster empathy and inclusiveness, and actively experiment with new ways of doing things.

Developing skills and capabilities to deliver real impact at a system level is also critical. This particularly includes skills like planning, strategic thinking and change management.

Leaders should also boost collaboration in their teams by engaging in active listening, dialogue, building trust and navigating tensions; and they should make use of storytelling to powerfully influence the wider system.

Finally, it’s important for leaders to clarify roles and contributions, and to build both personal and collective confidence and resilience. This will help sustain ambition and motivation in the long term.

There are clearly many elements to developing “the leaders we need” – and this is just a short summary. But developing leaders is arguably one of the most valuable things you can do in your not-for-profit – done well, it has myriad benefits, not least of which is boosting the impact of your mission.

The full report is well worth a read. Download it free here.

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