Is The Voluntary Sector The Natural Home Of Liberating Leadership?

What charities can learn about leadership from their service users’ experiences.

Last week I went to an inspiring seminar at CASS Business School, hosted by the Centre for Charity Effectiveness ( CharityTalks)  Jon Barrick, CEO of The Stroke Association (, gave a passionate account of how he had achieved a remarkable turn-around in the organisation by modelling “servant leadership”. His approach squared well with my human relations thinking: that the duty of leaders is to engage staff and enable them to take up the full positive authority of their roles.

Andrew Forrest, Visiting Fellow, then gave a wonderful accessible academic presentation: he put servant leadership into the wider context of other recent leadership models. Andrew suggests that current leadership theory has moved on from the previous framework of “Transformational Leadership”.  A new wave of leadership writing might be grouped under the banner of “Liberating leadership”, to include ideas about:

  • Servant Leadership* – Earn the right to lead.
  • Values-Based Leadership – Encourage ownership of core values, and people will take intelligent decisions based on these.
  • Emotional Intelligence – Develop capacity to experience, recognise and think about feelings, in order to attend to these in the workplace.
  • Complexity – Work with the fluid, dynamic nature of organisational systems.
  • Authenticity – Disclose more of yourself and be seen as a fully rounded individual.
  • Followership – Attend to followers and their needs – they are more important to leaders than vice versa.
  • Storytelling – Make conversations real, share knowledge, reinforce the organisational mission.

The common element of Liberating Leadership is a values-driven, transparent, human (“authentic”) leadership that relinquishes control through extensive delegation and consultation in a flat organisational structure. There is a high degree of direct contact between the leaders and followers – with the leader attentive to the best ways of removing obstacles so as to enable people to excel in their work roles. Liberating leadership aims to unlock talent, share knowledge, and reward learning.

It was exciting to see this presentation in a voluntary sector context, because I think that at its best the voluntary sector is the natural home of liberating leadership. The sector already champions a form of liberating leadership in its delivery of services to its beneficiaries – it places service users at the heart of the organisational experience. Many charities also adopt aspects of liberating leadership in their radical nurturing of volunteers.

The challenge for voluntary organisations is to transplant this existing framework of user and volunteer empowerment, and to extend it into their relationships with staff. If organisational leaders want their staff to go that extra mile – want staff to strive to bring out the best in the service users – then leaders have to model this same approach themselves by bringing out the best in their staff.

The Best and Worst of Service User Experiences

I say that at its best the voluntary sector is the natural home of Liberating Leadership, because, understandably, at its worst, circumstances conspire to make the sector the most unlikely home of such leadership. When voluntary organisations grapple with hand-to-mouth funding, uncertain futures, and client trauma, this can foster a deeply insecure culture in which staff are pressured to stretch themselves beyond sustainable limits, and think they have to sacrifice their wellbeing for the organisational cause. (Similar dynamics happen in over-stretched public sector services too, where leadership can get very bullish.)

There is a deeper reason why I argue so forcefully for Liberating Leadership in the voluntary (and public) sectors:  One of the most fascinating phenomena that occurs when care organisations come under this sort of extreme pressure, is that the staff and volunteers tend to mirror the distressed behaviours of their service users.

For example, in a stressed mental health service, each different team seems to exhibit its distinct forms of distressed behaviour when confronted by change: old age psychiatry seems more confused and forgetful; child and adolescent units can get more rebellious and stroppy; and forensic teams can be full of aggression and hostility. In other sectors I’ve seen senior managers in schools squabble with each other about who is in or out of the social “gang”, behaving as if they were having a playground spat; and I’ve experienced drug and alcohol projects whose working practices are as chaotic as their clients’ lifestyles!

It is essential to understand this extraordinary phenomenon when managing workplace conflict, because it explains why ordinary individuals who are generous and sophisticated with their service users, can sometimes be unexpectedly hostile and immature with their colleagues. If leaders can help staff to recognise that this behaviour may be connected to service users’ distress, they can break the patterns and introduce a healthier culture. The key message here is that the behaviour is understandable, but it is not helpful. Staff need help from their leaders to think about how they will change it for the better.

The Clues to Liberating Leadership Are There

I think Liberating Leadership provides the framework for helping staff to make these changes. I also think that charities need to look to their empowering service user models for inspiration about how to lead their staff effectively. If charities have already designed brilliant services to help their users resolve their crises, then these services will provide a clue about what help staff might need to manage their distress.

For example I worked with a women’s refuge that provided a remarkably safe, containing service to its users, but at great personal cost to the employees: staff could be shockingly aggressive and were deeply untrusting of each other. I asked staff whether their hostile behaviour might mirror the experiences of service users, and the idea seemed to make sense to them. After that whenever tempers flared the CEO became remarkably effective at drawing attention to the “domestic violence” taking place in the office, which tended to nip the aggression in the bud very neatly. She did this with a lightness of touch, and helped staff to devise their “security procedures” for handling interpersonal conflict with colleagues. She also encouraged staff to take up their  autonomy in their roles, based on the organisational values of human dignity and independent choice – values that applied as much to the staff as the service users.


I found this book really helpful for explaining organisational “mirroring”, though it’s a serious read!:

The Unconscious at Work – individual and organisational stress in the human services, Obholzer and Zagier Roberts (eds), Routledge, London (1994)

Otherwise get in touch – I’m always happy to chat through other interesting books.


* I’ve adapted these definitions – they may not reflect AF’s descriptions.


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