What does an era of scrutiny and ready criticism mean for leadership?

This is an unprecedented moment in time, where the old rules no longer apply. We live in an age characterised by an urgent need to solve the complex economic, social and environmental issues that face our society. With an apparently increased breakdown of trust in senior public figures, the media is full of stories suggestive of social unease and disenfranchisement.

Yet a strong and active spirit of social justice remains within communities and the organisations serving them locally, regionally and nationally. This determination may come from deep within those communities themselves, in isolation or in collaboration with others. There is no shortage of appetite to get involved; we see far more people who work outside of public and third sector organisations worried about the future and actively seeking opportunities to play a role in social change. If it hasn’t been before, social change is now everyone’s responsibility.

For people who take on leadership roles in pursuit of this, there is a constant stream of challenge and opportunity to navigate. Leaders are increasingly exposed, and often find themselves under relentless scrutiny by the public. We live in a society influenced by a potent mix of rising expectation and, at the same time, increased accessibility via social media. Both the public and media demand answers with virtually no time to prepare. While scrutiny is a force for good, the wrong kind of scrutiny can mean these roles come at a personal cost.

None of this deters those who are motivated by making a difference. How are these leaders staying ahead of the game? The old heroic model of leadership is no longer fit for purpose. Contemporary leaders need to go beyond embracing ambiguity; they need to be disruptive to instigate change and for their organisations to flourish. They expect the unexpected and their resilience to cope with chaos often stems from their honesty and deep commitment to the cause. They are equipped to respond to challenge calmly and often do so with humility.

Contemporary leaders need to go beyond embracing ambiguity; they need to be disruptive to instigate change and for their organisations to flourish

Finding the right person for the job means recognising emerging leadership characteristics and behaviours such as:

  • Acting as facilitator and alliance builder. No single sector can solve such complicated and entrenched social issues alone. These are system issues that need a system response. Great leaders galvanise and inspire others to join them in solving the problem.
  • Working in co-creation. Leaders who want to achieve social change realise there is much more to gain by earning trust and shaping the agenda with the communities they serve. There is no ivory tower here.
  • Being calm in a crisis. They know that the values of their organisation and commitment to positive outcomes is authentic and they have been transparent about their business.
  • Using insight and capacity for self-challenge. They rely on their emotional intelligence to anticipate and understand their impact on others.
The demands of leadership roles will continue to evolve: what we value in 2019 may be very different in five years’ time, and certainly will be in ten. There is a responsibility for us all to prepare the leaders we will need in the future. As sector boundaries become more blurred, with a wider range of organisations involved in delivering social change, do we need to think even more laterally about where those leaders will come from?