leadership on a scrabble board

Why the third sector needs a different kind of leadership

By Mike Adamson 27 October 2023 5 minute read

This blog is based on a speech by Mike Adamson, Chief Executive of the British Red Cross, at NPC Ignites 2023. 

My career in social impact began thirty years ago, when I left the commercial sector with the drive to make a greater impact on society and the big thorny issues of our time.  

I have experienced several points of inflection since that decision, especially in the past decade in my role as chief executive of the British Red Cross. But the truly seminal moment for me was the Grenfell Tower Fire in 2017.  

During that horrifying disaster, I saw organisations that would never think of themselves as emergency responders – mosques, churches, youth organisations – opening their doors in the middle of the night to the people of North Kensington.  

It was all very chaotic and fragmented, but it was soon clear that we were all on the same team, we just didn’t realise it.  

It struck me that the Red Cross might be perceived as a large organisation, but we are small in relation to the scale of the needs we aspire to meet. In practice, we could not achieve the outcomes we were seeking on our own. This is true in all of the settings we work in. 

The nation needs the sector to do better 

That national tragedy just over six years ago dramatically altered my perspective on leadership.  

During most of my career to that point, I thought about social change and impact through the lens of leadership of my own organisation, rather than how I, with other leaders, could change the system. I don’t think I was alone in this. 

I realised that while the individual organisations I was involved with could never be faulted for their passion and commitment, some of the systems we worked in were dysfunctional. I also noticed that we tended to blame others – mainly government – for the state of the “system” rather than having the humility to look to ourselves and our own role in it. 

Be it in health, disability, the refugee sector, or emergency response, I have seen the third sector’s approach often characterised by multiple organisations pursuing the same goals, with little curiosity about each other or deep collaboration. Overlaps, duplication and gaps were a chronic challenge.  

Of course, there are shining exceptions and we have tried to play our part, through our contribution to the creation of the VCS Emergency Partnership and the Asylum Reform Initiative. 

But I think the nation may need us as a sector to do better. We are living in a time of multiple, simultaneous emergencies, where what happens on one continent affects another. The world is going through multi-dimensional change and the sense of jeopardy at individual, community, national and international levels is palpable. Inequalities are growing. 

The first steps for a new type of leadership  

It is now very clear to me that no single organisation can achieve its mission and goals on its own.  

I believe that the first step in us fulfilling our potential as shapers of a future nation is the recognition that we can have individually excellent organisations scoring eight out of ten; and yet still only be scoring four out of ten collectively on the big causes of the day.  

I think we should challenge ourselves: why don’t we take a look at the big issues in climate justice, social justice and economic justice – for example, food security and poverty, climate resilience or homelessness. Then let’s map the capabilities of the sector, assess our degree of alignment and influence and then work together to create an architecture of connected strategic platforms.  

For this to happen, we all need to be ready to change. Large organisations need to lean into the required strategic collaboration and practice and be generous in their inclusion of smaller organisations. NCVO and ACEVO need to help us harness the key think tanks like NPC and Pro Bono economics but also other key thought leaders like Resolution Foundation, Demos and Institute for Government. We need to be ready to work cross-sector with both government and private sector. 

Why don’t we lean in together at the national level and unleash our highest potential on the things that matter most to the world? 

5 ways to practice systemic leadership 

I have probably spent more time on collaborative, systems working and leadership in the last five years than in the twenty-five years that went before it. Systemic leadership is very different to team and organisational leadership and no doubt it can be tiring and difficult. Here are some things I have learned so far.  

Embrace individual and collective humility.  

No single organisation can achieve its mission and goals on its own. As Harry Truman said, isn’t it amazing what you can achieve if no-one cares who gets the credit. 

Be curious about adjacencies and leave your organisational baggage at the door.  

Who else operates in our space towards our mission? How well do we understand their theories of change? Be prepared to generate new mental models for how we generate collective impact 

Think bigger.  

Big propositions and big asks. Sector bodies and thinktanks to map the capabilities of the sector on the big issues of our time and assess our degree of alignment and influence. Then work together to create a new architecture of connected strategic platforms.  

Don’t just say everyone else needs to change.  

Be curious about bigger possibilities and how charities need to adapt. Help the sector move from tactical policy calls towards strategically shaping the future of Britain by being propositional on the big issues of the day.   

Broaden our leadership outlook.  

Most leadership literature narrowly focuses on teams and organisations – just look in any airport bookshop. Multiply our potential impact by exploring what it means to be a leader within a system and how to lead horizontally. From ego system to eco system.  

All this is very challenging when organisations large and small are hard pressed operationally and financially. 

But as Nelson Mandela said: everything is impossible until it is done. 

Don’t miss out on NPC Ignites 2024, taking place on 15 October.


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