A look at what leadership means in the social sector – and why it is different from business management
IT is often easier to say no rather than yes, to articulate what one doesn’t want in life rather than what our actual desires and dreams are: I don’t want to become an engineer, I don’t want to marry someone, I don’t want to join a particular organisation or sector, etc.
I recently met a lovely group of Canadians who said that for the longest time it was easier to say that Canadians are not this kind of people rather than the kind of people they really are!
The social sector has also been in this dilemma for a while – we are non-government (OK!), not for profit (wonderful!). So when we started talking about the need for defining what leadership and management means for the social sector, instinctively we said that it is not business leadership or management.
However, the journey of setting up ISDM (Indian School of Development Management) has given us the opportunity to explore this idea in more depth and with a little more nuance as we try to create a common vocabulary and understanding of these concepts – and broad contours and patterns have started to emerge, some of which are given below.
Development leadership should include and imbibe:
1. An imagination of the kind of society we would like to live in based on certain non-negotiable universal human values like equity, compassion and dignity. What would a society based on these values look like – what kind of relationships would we have? How would we engage with all living beings? With the environment? What kind of basic lives would be guaranteed for all? What nature of education would help guide us down this road?
2. An understanding of how to look at the concept of development through multiple lenses (and not just through an economic, year-on-year GDP growth lens) – the openness, willingness and ability to look at development from a human rights lens, environment lens, gender lens, welfare lens, etc.
3. The ability to understand social issues and design solutions through social systems and design thinking perspective. No social issue can be solved in isolation or in silos (learning outcomes are not only a result of curriculum, pedagogy, teacher presence and capacity, and class infrastructure, but also affected by poverty, family size, health and nutrition, education and empowerment of the mother, sanitation, etc).
4. An appreciation of the importance of building social purpose organisations and/or collaborative partnerships and networks with appropriate strategy, structure, systems, process and culture – given the complexity (social, human dynamics, transdisciplinary nature) and magnitude of issues facing society today (poverty, health, education, empowerment, livelihoods, environment), it is really impossible for a single individual or organisation to bring about sustainable, scalable social change.
Change needs to be underpinned in the belief that leadership in this space is not derived from hierarchy, status or designation (and therefore is not a noun) but is defined through the actions of any and every person devoted to the cause of change (therefore a verb).
This also underlines the importance of creating synergistic, holistic partnerships and collaborations which could help envision and deliver collective impact.
5. The desire to speak powerfully and create awareness about social issues, the social sector and social purpose organisations amongst society at large. While people know that things, in general, are not okay right now, very few really understand the true nature of how things stand in society and even fewer have an opinion on why it is like that.
In addition, there are a lot of misconceptions about careers in the development sector. The fact that just a handful of non-profit organisations are household names and manage to create awe around the work they do, adds to the lack of aspiration to join the sector.
The need to tell powerful stories is not so much from a self or organisation branding perspective, but more to inspire increasing number of bright, young individuals to devote themselves to social change based on an understanding of the wonderfulness that it is versus the misconceptions that surround it (including unidimensional work primarily through volunteering with no or low pay).
6. The ability to imagine and design for scale – most of us think of large organisations, hundreds of people, complex processes, strong central teams keeping things together when we think of scale. Whereas this idea might work in some contexts, in the social sector local context, its nuances and uniqueness are of paramount importance. Can we, therefore, start thinking of how we can scale impact without necessarily scaling organisations?
7. The concept of leadership grounded in a strong understanding of the self – who we are, what values do we actually stand for, what drives us, what are our fears, what do we bring to the table, etc.
Given the complexity and ambiguity one has to deal with in this space on a regular basis, it is the strength derived from the self which will help leaders stay on course, be patient, stay committed and enjoy the journey while striving for change.
The journey of establishing ISDM over the last few years has been one of collective wisdom. The ideas, inputs, engagements, commitments of hundreds of people who gave us something of themselves through the goodness of their hearts…it has really been life-affirming.
These conversations are the ones which helped us understand that changing leadership management practices on the ground will not happen purely by offering a programme, however good it might be.
It requires a more holistic, ecosystem-driven approach, focusing on creating and curating a body of knowledge called Development Management, working closely with social purpose organisations to raise the decibel levels on the importance of talent of this kind and then providing proof of concept through various programmes. And ultimately, looking to mainstream Development Management education (with many more educational institutions starting to offer meaningful programmes in this space) and helping establish it as a profession.
Just as the West was probably an appropriate place for the emergence of business management, India is probably one of the best places for Development Management and Leadership to be shaped and thought through. We hope that ISDM will play a pivotal role in making this happen and we invite you to join us on this journey of a lifetime!
First published in SmallChange.ngo blog.
Established in 2000, GiveIndia is India’s most trusted giving platform for donors. Our community of 1.5M+ donors and 150+ corporate partners have supported 1,800+ nonprofits, impacting 10M+ lives across India.
Gaurav Shah has over 15 years experience working both in the private sector and in the social development space largely as a management consultant and now as co-founder of ISDM. His areas of expertise include programme management and implementation, strategic planning and organisational restructuring. Before ISDM, Gaurav was heading Expansion and Sustainability for Hippocampus Learning Centres, one of the largest affordable rural pre-school chains in the country where he led the effort to start 100+ pre-schools over a single summer.