Charity leadership in an uncertain future

Edward Kellow and Rebecca Nestor are leadership developers and facilitators. They work with charities, social enterprises, education and community groups.




What of charity leadership in these post-referendum times, in which the fragility of partnerships is being brought home to us, and alliances are shifting day by day?

In our public and civil institutions, trust is a great resource during uncertainty: it boosts emotional security by helping citizens to feel that some parts of society can be relied on to think well about the future.

How do leaders gain the trust of others, when – temporarily – they may not entirely trust themselves to make the right decisions? Leaders want to do the right thing, but what is the right thing to do?

Different leadership styles

In the midst of uncertainty, the emotional pull for some leaders towards making a quick decision is strong. The pull may come both from their own anxieties and personal style, and those of the people around them – but if as leaders we make a premature decision, we may fail to bring colleagues and stakeholders with us, and trust may be damaged.

For others, the pull is in the opposite direction and creates a sense of being frozen, unable to act, instead discussing and re-discussing the issues. In this situation we may postpone a decision until it is too late, damaging the respect in which the organisation is held.

Managing the tension: Theory U

One way of working with this tension between being frozen and rushing to premature decisions is to use a framework known as Theory U.

In times of extreme uncertainty, managers and leaders need to be able to observe and feel what is happening in and around their organisation, for others and for themselves.

They need to find a way to work productively with uncertainty, and seize the moment when a collaborative decision is ready to be taken.

Working in this way, leaders may be better placed to mobilise powerful, creative, sustainable decisions that take the organisation forward in a way that others can trust. Theory U provides a framework for understanding and working with these capabilities.


Image by Kellykaneshiro / CC BY-SA 3.0

Space to think

A central element of Theory U is the creation of a space from which assumptions and decisions are explicitly but temporarily excluded. For both kinds of leaders – those experiencing the pull towards premature decisions and those feeling prevented from deciding – this ‘thinking space’ may be a way to achieve balance.

The thinking space can enable us to make sense of the situation, reconnect with our sense of purpose and values, and postpone the decision until the time is right. Or it can provide a focus on prototyping, envisaging outcomes of potential decisions, making the future feel more real and concrete. A subtle but important difference.

Note that the thinking space involves others as well as oneself – which may be difficult. In times of uncertainty, talking to others may feel impossible, even risky – because leaders feel they should have the answers and they don’t. But working with others is crucial if leaders are to gain and keep the trust of their followers, act collectively and repurpose their organisations for the 2020s.

Next steps

Charity leadership in the 2020s is NCVO’s new leadership programme for the next generation of voluntary sector leaders. In designing the programme, one of the many goals is to demonstrate that making time for ourselves to think is not a luxury – it’s an essential part of good leadership.

One of the main outcomes of the programme, we hope, is that participants will go away with some tools and techniques to make space for themselves, and others, to think creatively and collaboratively.


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