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Is leadership different in voluntary organisations, and if so why?

This question is often at the heart of many lively discussions here at the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership.  However, Dr Carol Jacklin-Jarvis's reading about the relationship between leadership and context, and reflections on recent research interviews, is leading her to ask a slightly different question.

In what ways do voluntary organisations impact on the way people within those organisations practice leadership?

This question assumes that there will be some kind of relationship between the organisation’s structure, purpose, and culture and the way in which individuals practice leadership – their activities, behaviours, and language.  To take a simple example, if an organisation’s purpose is to achieve a more just world, we would expect to find leadership practice that models the organisation’s commitment to justice.  For external observers, too much dissonance between organisational purpose and leadership practice will undermine legitimacy and trust.  So similarly, a ‘care’ organisation that consistently displays a form of leadership that is patently uncaring is likely to face some reputational issues.

Of course, the UK’s voluntary organisations have many purposes.  Their cultural influences are diverse, and they are very different in size and structure.  So, it seems reasonable to expect to see different leadership practices in different organisations.  Large, highly structured organisations frequently specify their expectations about leadership in policies and procedures that align with their values.  Smaller organisations may not have this raft of policies, but they are able to convey expectations of leadership in other ways. 

For example, the culture of a small community organisation might convey the expectation that leadership is consultative, inclusive, and participative.  Such ‘cultures’ may be transmitted through informal routines and norms – such as the expectations of trustees and other long-term stakeholders (including users or beneficiaries).

For a researcher, it’s always interesting to note how such expectations are conveyed through an organisation’s premises, the layout of a meeting room, the ways in which individuals interact, and of course through their social media presence.  Furthermore, I’m always interested in observing how an organisation’s observable culture enables leadership that is challenging and questioning – not always an easy one for those organisations that value consensus and an absence of conflict.

The assumption that there will be consonance between leadership practice and the organisational context points towards the likelihood that there is no one approach to leadership that is distinctively ‘voluntary sector’.  Adopting this approach in my research means beginning to uncover how different leadership practices reflect different aspects of the organisation – its history and roots, its particular mission, and the background (professional and cultural) of people within the organisation

However, this is not to argue that the relationship between organisation and leadership practice operates in one direction only.  Small organisations in particular can be moulded and re-shaped by the leadership practices of key individuals.  For example, leadership practice that is inclusive builds an inclusive organisation.  While this can certainly be a good thing, it raises another question for individuals in leadership – does the leadership practice in this organisation reflect the kind of organisation we want to become? 

10th May 2017

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