Noticing leadership: how good leaders notice and then choose how to act

Edward Kellow and Rebecca Nestor facilitate NCVO’s programme for the next generation of charity leaders, Charity Leadership in the 2020s.

It was the final day of Charity Leadership in the 2020s, and we were listening to a panel of excellent speakers being provocative about the challenges they expect charities to be facing in the 2020s. Three speakers and a chair, all women. We hadn’t particularly planned it to be all female, but there was something wonderful about listening to four senior women tell us what they were noticing in the present, and using it to help our group of next-generation charity leaders think about the future.

Juliet Mountford (NCT), Susan Cordingley (NCVO), Caron Bradshaw (Charities Finance Group), Charlotte Fielder (Battersea)

Noticing the difficult stuff: love and courage

Our speakers were uncompromising (we need to notice what isn’t working and be courageous enough to stop doing it), unexpected (we need more love and fewer strategic planning documents), and unashamed (we need more funding). And it all came from noticing.

Noticing as a leadership behaviour

One of us had just been reading E.M. Forster’s Howards End and this line from the book got us thinking about noticing: ‘He has worked very hard all his life, and noticed nothing. Those are the people who collapse when they do notice a thing.’ We think Forster is describing here the old gendered expectation that men should go to work, keep their heads down and suppress their ability to notice the emotional stuff. But in the twenty-first century leaders need to notice when someone is suffering, or when the organisation is doing things it doesn’t need to do or shouldn’t be doing. Twenty-first century leaders need to be OK about noticing, not prone to collapsing like Forster’s character.

Listening to our speakers made us realise that our programme has a big focus on noticing. Noticing and celebrating diversity – including but not only gender. Noticing how a collaborator may be feeling about a proposal, even if they haven’t said anything. Noticing when we ourselves feel energised or ready to collapse.

Noticing and encouraging or challenging

Noticing is about loving the things that people do well, and encouraging them to do them more. Noticing is also about recognising when things are not going well, and trying to turn things around by supportively challenging ourselves and the people we lead.

Two strategies for noticing and choosing how to act

When you notice someone do something well, tell them. When you notice signs things are not working, be alert and be curious. Then decide how to act.

We’re not talking about knee-jerk behaviour, though telling someone immediately that we appreciate what they’ve done has far more impact than telling them in their appraisal six months later. Making your team feel valued is an essential leadership skill.

We also need to notice and act on behaviours that suggest something is not working or is just plain wrong. This can take courage. People who work in charities are perceived as ‘wanting to do good’ and this may make it uncomfortable for leaders to notice and challenge behaviour that looks wrong. In the current context, charity leaders more than ever have a responsibility to notice and act on the good and bad things in their organisation.

Interested in Charity Leadership in the 2020s? Bookings are open now.

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