Lessons In Leadership

Two weeks ago I attended the Oxygen Conference organised by Wavelength. As I had graduated from the Community Business Leaders Programme run by RSA/Power To Change/RIO/SUMS they invited me along with other graduates from different parts of the UK to take part to benefit my project The Phoenix Cultural Centre CIC and gain insights from leaders across all sectors.

Everyone needs oxygen an analogy often quoted in life, when dealing with personal stress, stroppy teenagers and projects crashing together on your head it is always the first advice from a wise friend ‘put your own oxygen mask on first’. Is it that it’s often the case with social projects, businesses, charities and start ups that the very nature of what they are leaves their founders exhausted and overwhelmed with doubts and risk combined with a resolve that it is important to carry on regardless, where the need remains the driver despite the difficulties along the way.

Power to Change contacted those of us in the Community Business Leaders programme with an opportunity to take part in the Oxygen event put on by Wavelength. Since the CBL programme has ignited a boldness I was on it like a rat up a drainpipe, and intrigued and excited to learn more, to connect with a gathering of business and social leaders from a diverse global arena. There was everything to be gained to give my project and my own leadership some reflection and insight. Power to Change have published some of our insights here.

Connecting with the organisers beforehand enabled them to understand exactly what we needed from the event. To be able to be open about the challenges that leadership brought, as well as what we felt our project needed, was a refreshing change. Opened by Liam Black one of the founders of Wavelength, it was explained to the room that in order for the event to be successful it would operate under Chatham House Rule; sounds Jane Austenish doesn’t it but it is more like Fight Club – as in, first rule of….. By setting the context this removes the barriers between corporate and charity, large business owner and start up and becomes honest conversations between humans trying to make good sense of how to make good things happen.

Richard Addy introduced the concept of story telling, his strong example of a story of achievement and success swiftly accompanied by story two – the reality, that interwoven in all of the leaps and pinnacles were dark days, situations and struggles with circumstance poverty and integrity. He stressed the importance of putting ourselves into the picture, our real selves and what inspired us to act. Many have said that social enterprise is borne of sadness, an impetus to fix something that has gone wrong or something inside us that we want to heal and help the healing in others. The truth of it is that we can often mask our pain by channelling into social good, deflect it into building something to stop others bearing that. Telling a truthful story can allow others to see the integrity of the issues we are trying to face together and make them part of the social change movement. An authentic story shows situation to complication to resolution people want to see good news and bad news and that problems can be overcome for a better future.


Photo by Ken Treloar on Unsplash

Cecilia Weckstrom from Lego told the tale of how it started, how children should have only the best and how success can be a curse if you forget your ‘why’ – why you exist what you wanted to do/change/be. Diversifying income streams can be a saviour to finance but a killer to concept and companies, large and small, corporate and social have to stop and take that risk. Acknowledging that others do and you must, go back to basics empowers your own belief in your own singular ideal. They went back to talking to children ‘if you want to create change you have to work with young people’. We now know where the large companies were seen to be untouchable and see a return to the core be successful, to hang on to the principle and grow again actually gives some hope when so often our perception is that large, global business seem to be the root of what we believe to be wrong.

Dr Aravind Srinivasan from Aravind Eyecare System who successfully treat eye problems and blindness in India spoke about keeping the purpose and efficiency at the heart of your business so that you can design for non customers – people who can’t access your services – why not? Can you innovate to make it better, easier? He used the example of how a surgeon can do twice as many operations by having more nurses and they trained girls from local villages to be eye nurses a job that a specialised nurse would not undertake, this meant that the surgeon could have nurses preparing two instruments, two tables, one taking place whilst the surgeon worked on the other – twice as many people helped that way. It also highlighted the extra benefits your projects can bring. By extension another purpose is found as a result of the main purpose – in this case young women from nearby villages received education, upskilling and paid work as a result of the need for more nurses to work this way.

‘Intelligence and capabilities are not enough there must be a joy of doing something beautiful’ Dr V – Founder of Aravind Eyecare System

There is nothing bad about profit but, the process to profit needs to be examined. Profit was described as oxygen however, as Dr Aravind pointed out – pure oxygen will kill. Both speakers were using the point that whilst profit has oxygen in its pure state it is dangerous and pointless and this is reflecting in the sea change that has been happening in the last three years – that employees need a purpose, they look for purpose in their roles no matter what they are.

A refreshing change seeing large companies whose leaders are more aware and in touch, knowing the traditional CSR model isn’t working (and yet even now seen as a new thing by so many companies) that they cannot ‘bestow’ favour on grovelling and grateful charities and socially driven organisations as good pr and marketing for them and no gain for anyone who needs the help. Whilst they are busy people with targets, so are the people who they are offering their help to who have left their duties paid or unpaid as well to help develop your CSR strategy (motivational shortcomings) as someone said ‘ don’t tell me you can offer me people to paint a wall when I need access to your health and safety advisers, don’t use up a day of my time telling me your people will fix our strategy when they haven’t understood what we are trying to achieve, don’t use us as a way of motivating your employees – it is not my job to stop your employees hating their jobs – make it actually mean something’ In other words – make it really be what it is: Social and Responsible as well as Corporate. For social businesses it was good to meet global leaders who really believe in social impact and that the two need not be mutually exclusive.

Don’t allow your drive or ambitions to be suppressed by your environment change it or ship out – this is where resilience so needed in this type of business comes in, the very environment change that is needed to allow drive and ambitions will kick back when that is the very point of your existence as a project to change and grow – if it means your project is giving more people a voice in an environment hostile to that then its very nature means it must face these difficulties and stick it out, to give up and ship out isn’t an option especially as the remit we generally all work under and certainly lots of funders require is that we are locally rooted and dealing with locally rooted needs.

Peter KeenCBE – Director of Sport Advancement – Loughborough University has successfully coached many olympic gold medallists and gave insights into how all the elements of excellent performance are needed to proceed and succeed. Martin Narey who ran the Prison Service and Barnados spoke of listening and learning, the loneliness of leadership and David Pemsel Guardian CEO of remembering the principles of your organisations existence and adaptive leadership.

Photo by Sam Mgrdichian on Unsplash

The themes from speakers at the height of their professional careers or who have been there seen it and done it were refreshingly frank, the idea that families, health and easy fixes of having a healthy walk, getting enough sleep, putting boundaries around your time are really that simple and yes really that effective. That to lead requires humility as well as boldness and the best key to everything is to listen, that it is ok to doubt yourself and happy to dispel the myths of leadership. The days of hero leaders are over people look for purpose, collaboration, boldness and kindness in equal measure and a listener who will take advice on organisational decisions.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

Self doubt, fear of failure and anxiety will be your constant companions so the purpose has to be there, if you can’t make sense of your business how will someone else. Plan and protect time to think – some decisions are intuitive – but do ensure there are times to think slow, with logic, be willing to let go. In terms of out performing the great performers outlearned others, assimilating and transferring and successful businesses encourage and tolerate a culture of constant questioning.

It is ok to feel doubtful, intimidated and out of your depth, everyone feels the imposter syndrome, keep at the incremental improvements bit by bit everyday that is where the real work happens.

When talking about purpose, look for friends in purpose – I help you/you help me, you understand where each other is going, what you want and need to get there and step forward for each other to help that happen – go where the good energy is, where the good people are and just push it.

Look at your eulogy virtues as opposed to your resume virtues – build your life around that purpose that virtue sung as your last sunset comes.

How you deal with change? We have a disruptive chaos and a paralysis and these things challenge us so look for your reason for being, what unites you, your stakeholders, common goals and values? If you stick to these trust is generated and value is created. Trust your instincts make sure you value your team and their differences and qualities

Within the room was an understanding that large or small, corporate or social – businesses occupy the same space, are part of the same communities, containing the same human beings with complex needs and need to work realistically together. That the needs the social sector are meeting are usually way ahead of traditional business who need to anchor into towns and cities and networks, makes them a valuable barometer indicating change in our society. Now mental health and wellbeing have seeped in as considerations for all employers to be aware of, meet sympathetically and yet people see this happening first as social projects deal with helping those back on their feet who weren’t in an environment ready to acknowledge the existence of invisible, scary health problems. The attitude of the event was that people could openly ask for help and there was no expectation that it must be given and no resentment caused or felt by answering no, by working in this way actual stuff happens rather than good intentions which as we all know pave the road to hell and whatever that is for you.

We had on day two a chance to be open about our needs and ask for help, democratically people were given the chance to voice their needs and for people to come forward everyone was very engaged with the whole process.

Many were inspired by the discussion about platform and purpose and not mixing up the two, something spoke of not forgetting that the platform was not the purpose and the need to have a healthy platform, many things in place to help you spring from. Some of us our communities are adrift of platform and though clinging tenaciously to purpose find a gap there. This is why we need help that the funding does not necessarily become just money but another layer of a platform. Sometimes all we need isn’t a pot of money (though don’t let that stop anyone ever handing some over) but belief, sometimes just an email, an introduction to someone who can open a door just by saying to lofty heights ‘I recognise this value in this project and these people’ so often we talk to people who admire the cut of the emperors new clothes but not the value of a good pair of warm knickers, until they are told warm knickers are this years zeitgeist – then show an interest. That sometimes is all we need, to undo the ‘a prophet is not without honour except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home’ or as Will Rogers definition of an expert ‘an expert is a man 50 miles from home with a briefcase’. Sometimes the locally rooted, delivering to local issues needs the expert from 50 miles away to say what they have been saying for years to deaf ears.

So many people shared honest stories of reaching successful pinnacles in other worlds having everything and realising it wasn’t enough, no purpose to it, not enough good being made from it so they changed it, took brave leaps and realigned their purpose. It made me feel inspired by them but in fact also disconnected. How for us is it when we are trying to start something from nothing and we have nothing ourselves, how is it that we are starting these things because we are inside the problem and don’t want it to continue further that we know we must act but have no platform to spring from and yet here was our chance to build one. Largely because the generosity of those who can connect reached it out to us here. Hopefully this will be the new concept and template of what real Corporate Social Responsibility is, meaningful for all and really making change and improvements in the communities that we all exist together in. The event definitely gave an oxgen burst to my resolve and purpose



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