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Disrupt or retreat? How to lead your non-profit out of the pandemic

Disruptive leadership has been a hot topic in the past few years, with the term coming to prominence as we searched for new approaches to help us navigate the digital age. The need to explore new methods of management and leadership, as well as the choice of term, reflect primarily on the incredible pace and unpredictability of change we’ve been experiencing since digital became the driving force behind society at large and business in particular.

But what is disruptive leadership? What are the key characteristics of a disruptive leader? And now, in the face of an unprecedented external shock to us all, shouldn’t we resist adding to the disruption we’re experiencing, and instead retreat to tried and tested, stable and secure methods, and traditional leadership techniques?

That would seem the logical thing to do, to hold tight to certainty and rely on our experience to see us out the back of a period which has been beyond anything any of us have previously experienced.

But let’s pause for a moment and consider what we mean by disruptive leadership and what characteristics define it. There are different versions of this around of course, as there always is, but arguably disruptive leaders are agile and…

  • Humble, accept that others may know more than them and welcome critique
  • Adaptable, accept that change is constant and can’t be fully controlled. Not too precious to be prepared to change opinion and course in the light of new information or developments
  • Visionary, able to develop and focus on a long-term vision despite the fluidity of the present and short-term
  • Engaged, willing to listen and learn beyond and outside of traditional structures and hierarchies

It’s said that the root cause of the disruptive leadership model has been the disruption caused by digitisation of processes, products and business models. Can we not argue that the pandemic has had an equally seismic effect of products, processes and business models? Whilst many have struggled we’ve also seen innovation on an unprecedented scale here in the UK non-profit sector:

  • We transitioned our organisations overnight to remote-first working, and have sustained that for months
  • We found, embraced and invented virtual fundraising ideas
  • We channelled funds to those most in need and delivered direct support nationally and internationally
  • We provided food and sustenance to frontline workers and those who are being most impacted by the crisis
  • We supported professional members in defiance of the odds, and saw the professions re-emerge as an anchor of truth in a firestorm on uncertainty
  • We stepped in where society needed us to, we proved that the Third Sector is the lifeblood of this country, when the call went out we answered.

So let’s harness that energy and success, and be emboldened as we start to strategise our way forward over the coming months and years.

As a starting point, let’s consider our approach to decision-making, since agility is one of the bedrocks of disruptive leadership. Larry Page, co-founder of Google and CEO of Alphabet, builds on the old adage that the only bad decision is no decision, and takes it further, emphasising the value of fast decision-making

“There are basically no companies that have good slow decisions. There are only companies that have good fast decisions” Larry Page, CEO of Alphabet

There’s no denying Google & Alphabet’s success, built on OKRs and extended through disruptive leadership. Maybe this is the biggest lesson of all for us to take away? When we were compelled to make fast decisions, based on the little that we knew within a volatile environment, we made good decisions and survived. Many will do more than survive, they’ll learn their lessons and flourish in the new world. Are we brave enough to maintain this philosophy, to continue to make fast, clear decisions? Are you brave enough to join them….?

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