The new power

Dot Turton describes her organisation Recovery Connections as, among other things, “messy”. The Care Quality Commission have just published their verdict: “outstanding”, an exceptionally rare accolade in the residential rehab sector. Dot described to an ACEVO event how she works with a team in which the majority of people have lived experience of their own or a family member’s substance misuse, to recognise and value the entirety of that lived experience: which means creating a working environment which can cope with the impact of trauma. The team at Recovery Connections need to feel able to bring all of themselves to work, as part of creating an environment which is genuinely non-judgemental and empowering for the people they work with. I was struck by the courage and insight of this, having seen too many organisations in which team members are expected to be unaffected by the trauma they work with, much less to have trauma in their own lives or backgrounds. The delusion that a team of humans can be relentlessly professional, positive and boundaried can lead to a culture without empathy, and it creates a split between the “professionals” and the “patients” or “beneficiaries”, which causes harm to both groups.

Ruth Ibegbuna, at the NCVO conference, talked about founding RECLAIM,  a social action and youth leadership programme in Manchester, and how dramatically it changed, after the young people and their parents rejected labels like “disadvantaged” which the organisation had, like so many charities, used in its publicity and fundraising, and instead reformed its mission around ambition and pride in who they were: “working class young people being seen, being heard and leading change.” Ruth, who now leads Roots, which brings influencers from different social backgrounds together across divides, recognised that RECLAIM needed to embody the leadership equality it was seeking, otherwise it would just be another well-meaning charity whose mission was undermined by working in a way “that prevents working class young people with talent, imagination, ambition and drive, from fulfilling their leadership potential.”

Also at the NCVO conference, Edel Harris of Cornerstone, took the audience through her organisation’s dramatic transformation of its support offer, from a traditional management model which, during austerity, was leading to challenges in paying the real living wage to its support workers, inspired by the Buurtzorg devolved, self-managing local teams model, which I wrote about in my book.  This starts with a complete re-recruitment of the team, recruiting for values and the ability to work as part of an autonomous team, as well as for individual competence, with layers of managements and endless sets of policies replaced by access to coaches and a tiny number of essential policies. The results have been better outcomes as well as better paid, more fulfilling jobs.

These three leaders in different ways reflect approaches to leadership which embody ideas of ‘new power’, a model of organising, set out by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms in their book of that name, around a purpose which is “open, participatory, and peer-driven” rather than hierarchical and tightly managed. They have had the mixture of confidence and humility with Victor Adebowale describes as foundation of great leadership.  Speaking at the NCVO event, Oxfam’s new CEO, Danny Sriskandarajah, was explicit that the model of leadership we need now is feminist.

Our public service and charities sector leaders act in this way too seldomly. I know I do. The new power model has gained traction because it describes something we can all see: rapidly-forming, powerful networks of like-minded people creating change much more rapidly than some of our best known, big and slow-moving institutions. But new power is not always benign. It can be harnessed by populist movements with reactionary views, as well as by corporations like Google which struggle to live up to their “do no evil” motto, because their primary motivator remains profit. Communities can include and exclude in equal measure. Change can be chaotic, but it can also be the right sort of messy. So the role for community organisations is changing, but there is a role for those organisations and their leaders: practising what we preach, being an ally as often as a leader, and recognising that even in our internet-connected, devolved, rapidly changing world, power never evenly distributes itself.

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