Sir Stuart Etherington on Leadership


Sir Stuart Etherington on Leadership

Sir Stuart Etherington, CEO at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) joined Clore Social Leadership to discuss his role as a leader of leaders. As well as commenting more broadly on the social sector and NCVO’s place in it, he discussed the moral and ethical questions that need to be addressed as a leader.

Early leadership lessons
Sir Stuart Etherington about what leadership means for him: ‘I don’t think anybody actually sets out to be a leader. When I entered the workforce in the 70’s the private sector wasn’t fashionable. The public and voluntary sectors were far more suited to me as I was looking for a sense of service in my working life.’ 

Rather than looking up to iconic leaders, the people who inspired Stuart came from everyday settings. ‘I think everyone has that one teacher they remember, and for me it was my English teacher who opened my eyes.’ His parents too - his father was a painter and decorator and his mother was a cleaner - who together instilled the value of pragmatism over anything else. This stayed with Stuart who feels that pragmatism is more sustainable than the charismatic leader approach. He feels that although ‘charisma might instigate impressive sea changes, these changes don’t always stand the test of time’.

Stuart ruefully admits that if here were to have his time again he might be more reflective.  ‘There were times I thrust forward and sometimes ignored the subtleties and compromises made along the way, including those in personal relationships’.

Lessons for aspiring leaders
His role model these days is Samuel Pickwick from Dickens. In the book, Pickwick leads three men across the country through amazing adventures despite not having any real control of them. ‘The inspiring thing about him, is his ‘affability’. While others may aspire to adaptive or agile leadership, Stuart aspires to affable leadership. Getting on with others is for him ‘an underrated engagement. Very often, in order to lead well you need to be sociable - inspirational even.’

But of course we must be able to flex styles when required. 'To be a leader one must abandon the desire to be liked.’ Citing middle management as a tricky place to exercise leadership he commented that, ‘one is beholden to those they are managing, while also coordinating those alongside them and possibly managing upwards’. Stuart’s advice to emerging leaders is to rapidly move into a CEO role in a small voluntary organisation, attesting that there is no better place to learn about the edginess of taking responsibility.

Leading the voluntary sector
Sir Stuart acknowledged that NCVO’s role as a sector leader is as influencer and commenter. He recognises that he rarely sets the agenda. ‘The great man theory – where one individual really shapes history - does not hold true. Change happens when cultural, economic and political forces align. Nelson Mandela and Napoleon Bonaparte influenced, but probably did not really make history’, says Stuart, encouraging the reading of War and Peace.

Moral and ethical leadership
In 2015 the UK’s charity sector saw more public and media scrutiny than in the past 20 years.  The attacks were varied and Stuart said, ‘some issues we vigorously and publicly defended but for those with public resonance we went back to voluntary organisations seeking behaviour change’. For example, fundraising regulation which was unpopular with many who believed that NCVO should ‘defend us right or wrong’. Stuart believes that the moral decision for him lay between his representation role and his responsibility to ‘do the right thing’, even if this meant implicit criticism of the sector he loves.

Stuart fondly remembered his own leadership development opportunity at The Aspen Seminar in Colorado. The programme considered texts from philosophers and thinkers from Martin Luther King to Sophocles, giving leaders the chance to debate, act out and reflect on difficult moral dilemmas. Stuart himself learnt a huge amount from playing Tiresias, in Antigone – in particular some great lessons about ‘speaking truth to power’.

Looking forward
In the next 10 years, Stuart commented that, ‘there will be younger, more networked leaders who will work in organisations that are more nimble than those of today.’ Going further he added ‘the distinction between the public and private sector will blur as we have already seen with the founding of many social enterprises and the rise in social investment. The sector will continue to be driven by the digital revolution, and this will likely reflect people’s increasingly flexible lifestyles’.

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