Top-down leadership too common in charities
by Graham Jones
Instead of adopting the obvious and easy option of top-down management, charity leaders should opt for a so-called bottom-line approach that puts performance and the future of the organisation first, writes consultant
Too many senior leaders adopt a top-down approach to their roles. This is not surprising because it is the obvious and easy option. Organisational structures within charities are almost always drawn with leaders at the top, and leaders are expected to inspire followership among 'the people below'. Too often, I come across that dreadful word 'subordinates' in organisations, which further perpetuates the unchallenged notion of leaders being on top directing their minions who cater to their every whim.
So the language, ethos, and culture in the vast majority of charities perpetuate and exacerbate what has become an unchallenged protocol that leaders should adopt a top-down approach. But what if leaders turned their profession on its head and adopted a 'bottom-line' approach? There are numerous theories and models of leadership, most of which overcomplicate a role that is actuality is quite straightforward. At the simplest level, leaders are tasked with delivering performance which will satisfy key stakeholders. If this performance is to be delivered and sustained, then leaders must oversee the creation of an environment that enables it to be delivered.
So there are three core elements to get right in any charity organisation; leadership, performance, and environment. But where do you start? This is where too many leaders take the easy route and start with their own leadership. And why not? Leaders almost always get promoted to leadership positions because of their personal attributes, so it is natural that they should start from and rely on what has got them to where they are. The environment leaders create will inevitably reflect the stamp that they may sometimes subconsciously impose upon it. At the extreme, there is the danger of producing clones and delivering performance that is a direct function of the strengths of the leader, but which is also limited by his or her weaknesses.
Bottom-line leadership is about putting performance first. But it is more than achieving the performance that will keep stakeholders happy; it is about the future health of the organisation. Bottom-line leaders then define the environment that will deliver the performance. What are the enablers and incentives that need to be in place to ensure the performance? What are the values that will drive success? What are the attitudes, mindsets, and behaviours that are required of the people who will deliver the performance? How will these things be measured?
Whatever the answers to these questions, there are a few critical factors that need to be satisfied in any organisation intent on delivering high performance which is sustainable.Individuals and teams are clear about what is expected of them on a day-to-day basis as well in the longer-term. Success is recognised and celebrated. People thrive in conditions created by the combination of high performance expectations that are accompanied by high levels of support to achieve them. Delegation and empowerment are the norm, being underpinned by good working relationships, a feedback culture, accountability and ownership, and clearly-defined goals. There is a 'we are in it together' mentality that is the foundation of high performing teams. And healthy competition exists in the form of shared learning and commitment to everyone's development, as well as individual and team goals being completely aligned
It is only when the multidimensional, targeted performance has been identified, and then the environment required to deliver it has been defined, that bottom-line leadership can be mapped out. Bottom-line leaders require an agility and flexibility that enables them to stay in tune with their environment. They take nothing for granted, especially when it comes to their people's commitment, loyalty, and engagement. They know that no matter how good a job they do as a leader there will always be some people who are disgruntled and disengaged. They devote time and energy to listening to their people's views and showing genuine empathy because they know this is more important than ever before in a harsh commercial world that is the 'new normal'.
These leaders know that high performing organisations are continually changing – they can never stand still. Whether it is driving internal change aimed at sustaining and enhancing employee engagement and the environment required to deliver the performance, or the continual innovation required to maintain and gain competitive advantage in the marketplace, bottom-line leaders strive to stay ahead of the game. This process involves planning the what-if scenarios so that they cater for as many surprises as possible. These leaders expect the unexpected and are ready for it.
Bottom-line leadership should not be confused with a sole focus on delivering the numbers. Instead, it is about ensuring the future health of charities by prioritising and defining multidimensional performance measures, creating and maintaining the environment that will deliver them, and then leading in a way that is in total alignment.
Professor Graham Jones is the founder of Top Performance Consulting Ltd