Equipping, vision & opportunity: how do we develop young leaders? - 6th February 2014

Steve Miller

At a recent talk the speaker described the history and organisations of their faith community in the UK.  One of the most interesting observations was the difficulty of handing leadership over from one generation to the next, and the even greater difficulty of moving to a more equal gender balance in leadership.  In frustration, some people just formed new organisations that performed the same function as the old organisation.  Although there may have been specific reasons why this applied to this particular community, I think the general issue is one that many of us are familiar with. 

We ‘talk the talk’ quite well – we believe in encouraging young leaders and activists – but, in practice, we don’t always walk the walk. A colleague once described a sermon in her church where the minister asked the congregation to put their hands up if they saw themselves as leaders in the community.  Just a couple of hands went up. So, already we have some big questions:

 ·                How do we create environments that allow and encourage succession, particularly to younger leaders? 

·                How do we equip people with the confidence and the skills to take on leadership roles when necessary?

The first is a question about organisation and community culture and expectations.  How do we change these without destroying or disrespecting the existing leadership? The second is a question about individuals.  What kind of development is needed to allow people to fulfil their leadership potential? 

Changing cultures is not easy and we all share a fear of change – the familiar is comfortable and change, however rational it may appear, is scary.  A week ago I was a guest at the first day of a new programme in the Jewish community called Gamechangers aimed to equip those with some leadership experience to move to the next level and make a real difference.  The focus was on how to enable change to happen and the first part of the day was based on John Kotter’s 8-step process for leading change though focused on just the first three steps: 

·        Step 1: Establishing a Sense of Urgency

·        Step 2: Creating the Guiding Coalition

·        Step 3: Developing a Change Vision

In my short presentation I was asked to tell a story of change that focused on the first step – establishing a sense of urgency.  In preparation I reflected on three different stories – although I kept to the rules and only spoke about one – and asked myself a series of questions extrapolated from Kotter’s outline.

·        What was my strategic aim? (Not always the same as the more overt or explicit aim of the activity or project).

·        What did the pre-existing landscape look like? What was I changing from?

·        What was the particular moment of opportunity? In more than one case this could have been described as a crisis or a trauma but it could equally be about gradual building of momentum towards a tipping point.

·        What were the outside levers or validation tools that helped enable the change?

·        What were the internal levers that helped validate and support the change?

·        How was a sense of excitement created?

Steering institutions towards a more open and encouraging environment for young and emerging leaders is greatly challenging but once they are ready in principle, they have to know what to do.  There are always dangers in looking to the corporate world for lessons but I’d suggest we can learn some things in this area.  If we are serious about walking the walk we need to implement: 

·                A sophisticated recruiting effort – Existing leaders putting real effort into identifying the leaders of the future.

·                An attractive 'working' environment – So many times new leaders are put off by archaic meetings and unwelcoming interactions with existing leaders.

·                Challenging opportunities – New leaders have to be given real responsibility.  Just shadowing someone else for years will just not do.

·                Early identification and support –  My synagogue runs a leadership training programme for our 14 and 15 year olds to become youth leaders in our clubs, and then a year or so later they have the option of joining friends from all over the country to train as leaders in their peer-led youth movement. 

·                Planned development – “training” is just one element of a planned programme which might also include induction, mentoring and placements in other organisations.

At the heart of organisational change and leadership is the quality of our relationships.  At the Gamechangers day someone said, “Developing a vision is a team sport”.  It is quite a challenge to be BOTH a leader and a follower at different times and in different contexts.  In small professional teams we all need to learn how to manage and be managed as different people take on the leadership at different times.  But in a community context there are so many other emotional, social and cultural factors at play that we need to employ sophisticated levels of empathy and sensitivity to ensure that people can move forward together.

In future blogs I will write more about how to help develop the individual qualities that can help us in our leadership roles, but, in the meantime, FbRN can work with organisations to advise on how to make small or large changes or transition to new ways of working, and also how to run inclusive leadership development training – not just for the young!