Leading Beyond Authority

by Julia Middleton

The second outer circle

The second outer circle represents society as a whole. There are many reasons – some organisational, some societal – for leaders to operate in this space.

Licence to operate

Most organisations now acknowledge that their licence to operate is not a given: they need to connect with, and convince, the outside world. They have shareholders and partners to keep onside. The boundaries between the organisation, its stakeholders and the outside world are becoming more fluid. Contracting out has become more common. Corporate social responsibility is speeding ever higher up the agenda. The organisation’s leaders know that operating in isolation is not an option – and that many things that happen in the outer circle have a direct impact on their ability to operate.

In some cases, it goes even further. They know that, however excellent their organisation becomes, if other organisations are not going in the same direction, none of them will succeed. So organisations need their leaders to connect with the outside world. Maybe now the skills of leading a network are going to become as important as those of leading an organisation. Sure, the leaders can send out ambassadors to do the connecting for them: marketing professionals, corporate social responsibility experts, policy developers. But sometimes the ambassador is not enough – so the leaders have to do it themselves. If the message is to be got across and the outside world is to be reconciled with yours, communication has to be direct.

In any case, if the leaders don’t get out into the changing world, they run the risk of not being sufficiently connected to spot the opportunities and threats there. And they sure won’t know how to grab them – or duck them – when they come. They run the risk of developing ‘group think’, and becoming convinced that theirs is the best and only way of doing things. And they won’t spot talent in unfamiliar places.

Civil society needs leaders

The outer circle needs leaders. Not simply as representatives of organisations that need to connect with the outside world, but as individual citizens in their own right. We all live in society – and society needs the brains and abilities of all of us if it is to run well. Democracy is not just about voting every few years and then whingeing in the intervening period about politicians not being able to run the place properly. We all need to engage as citizens. Some will do it by entering politics. Others will do it by standing up as leaders of civil society. But we all need to be involved.

And many leaders need civil society

A lot of leaders aren’t just out there because it’s useful to them as professionals, or because society needs them. They are there because they want to be. They want to make a difference beyond their core circle – and civil society is what enables them to do it. As I watch people on Common Purpose programmes, in Teesside in the north of England, or in Dublin, or Johannesburg, or Frankfurt, I see a re-emergence of philanthropy. And a growing belief that politicians cannot –and cannot be expected to – address society’s issues on their own.

As citizens, this new generation of leaders is more likely to volunteer. They worry about short-termism and about the cultural fragmentation that they see going on around them. It’s the silo problem again: but across society – and writ in very large letters. For me, the best illustration of this came from the programme in Birmingham. A young participant described feeling as if she had been in a maze, where every organisation and each community has its own separate section, until finally someone cut down the hedges for her. Now she could survey the whole landscape. She could spot short cuts – and avoid dead ends. But perhaps mostly this new generation worries that, if leaders do not address these issues head on, trust in both leaders and the very idea of leadership will erode.

Prepare for tough questions

If leaders, having braved the first outer circle, come out to the next one, they are in for an even bigger surprise. If they found the questions about their legitimacy hard to handle in the first outer circle, the interrogation out here is of a whole new order. Now they are told – loudly and publicly – to butt out. They are hit with a barrage of legitimacy questions. Most of which start with ‘by what right...?’ or ‘on whose authority...?’ I well remember going to meet the leader of Manchester City Council about three years after I had started Common Purpose. As I walked in, he welcomed me with: ‘I wouldn’t have let you into my office two years ago.’ He explained that, when he had been elected leader of the city two years before, he was determined that, through his own civil leadership, he would produce huge change. And he had. Manchester was on a roll, a big roll. You could feel it wherever you went. But now he recognised that, to go further, he needed others. That he would need all leaders of civil society, all over Manchester, to help. That he could not do it alone. So he had decided that if we could find, inspire, connect and develop more leaders – especially the next generation of leaders in Manchester – then Common Purpose might indeed be useful.

The great ‘they’

Both in organisations and in society, we have become far too good at delegating everything to the great ‘they.’ This can be politicians. Or ‘the people upstairs.’ Or ‘the experts.’ Sometimes, it’s just someone– anyone – else. What we don’t realise is that, sometimes, there is no ‘they.’ It’s ‘us.’ Or even ‘me.’ It has almost gone so far that, when you do stand up, you are seen as acting illegitimately unless you are a politician, the boss or a professional carrying the relevant institutional or departmental brief. Jude Kelly is Artistic Director at the South Bank Centre in London. She says: ‘We cannot wait to be given legitimacy. We need to legitimise ourselves.’

Bigger coalitions and even longer long-games

And that’s not all. If time scales in the first outer circle were long, they are even longer out here – and the coalitions you need to build are even bigger. The centripetal force becomes even more compelling. Go back to Derek Higgs: ‘The further out you get, the harder it gets.’

It’s not for everyone, but...

So it gets tougher, the further out you go. Lots of very successful, talented people don’t want to go out there, or don’t see the point. They add real value to their organisations and to society by doing what they do well. And that’s fine, as long as they don’t sit on the sidelines throwing rocks at the growing number of leaders who do want to move out beyond their authority. This topic is intended for the ones who want to go further. What can they learn from people who have already done it? What do they need to learn (or unlearn) to make the transition successfully? And how do they avoid retreating with a bitter ‘never again’, or worse, with the stubborn conviction that change in the outer circles simply isn’t possible, so it’s not worth trying?

Most of us are developed to be followers, agents of organisations. We are encouraged to stick to our core circle and to try to keep away from the boundaries. At the most, we go into boundary management, watching the outside world from in here and trying to analyse it. Then, suddenly, we get appointed to the top job and have to deal with the outside world.

Sir David Varney, Chair, HM Revenues & Customs