Reminiscing after a virtual exchange with old friends the other day, the phrase mis-spent youth sprung to mind. Though used ironically, the phrase reminded me of the set of beliefs we nurtured and held. On reflection that youth was never mis-spent, it created who we are today and what we still hold as our core values.
Like a lot of teenagers at the end of the 1970s music was my passion, punk in particular. Here was a music which was young, unpretentious and angry with society, government, leadership and control. Our view at the time was that those in power were in it to uphold privilege, specifically at the expense of youth and the working classes.
For some of us that anger was a passing phase but for others - myself included - there was something deeper which we wanted to explore. Music gave me a route to do that, I wandered off into the harder end of punk, the bit which was protest and politics based, moving from the noise of the Sex Pistols, to the politics of the Clash and into the anarchic screaming of Crass. It’s the words of the latter that have stuck in the back of my mind throughout my life, “there is no authority but yourself’. This doesn’t mean that rules and norms don’t apply, it’s the change that you create within those things that are in your control.
It’s easy to draw direct and angry parallels to current issues. Equally, it’s easy to talk about authority and therefore leadership within the context of those who sit at the top table, who set the rules, who direct this, that and the other. I am not for a minute suggesting that we establish an anarcho-syndicalist commune (for those old enough to remember Monty Python and The Holy Grail). For me there are a couple of deeper points around authority and leadership which feel very relevant right now.
We must work with communities to create and maintain their own authority and leadership.
What community response to COVID-19 has made clear is that authority and leadership existed already in so many neighbourhoods. Developed under the radar, in spite of and outside of the control of systems, it has achieved incredible things. It has provided the support mechanisms that people need, not just in times of national crisis, but when local jobs went, when people fell through the cracks of established systems and support, when other local factors impacted on people’s lives. Communities have taken control, led with their own authority – they’ve supported each other because this is what they’ve always done and also what they excel at.
It’s only now that the value of this is being truly recognised, and it will be communities and people that help things recover; stopping people from falling through the gaps, preventing people being left behind.
The danger now is traditional authority, which has traditionally undervalued people and community activity as it seeks to control, shape and organise what happens, rather than, provide the unhindered openings and opportunity the community needs to do what it already does even better.
You can’t design a system or model to replicate this, you cannot prescribe a certain way to do things. If you try you will damage the very things that are needed. If we truly value community, then we must enable it to thrive, investing in it, seeing it as an equal, effective, adaptable and often more valuable partner for what services are seeking to achieve. We must not try to control it or re-invent it in a system image, we need to resource it and let it grow.
We must liberate our personal leadership and be accountable for our own decisions.
We spend a fair amount of time working with leaders at all levels in health and social care, people who have responsibility for commissioning, overseeing and delivering systems and support to others. The problem here is systems often disallow personal leadership.
During this current COVID 19 situation we’ve stayed connected with leaders in social care and health, who tell us about not only the huge and immediate challenges they face within an environment that was already challenged, and some would say broken. Whilst they’ve talked about the stresses and pain that goes alongside their roles right now, they’ve also - strangely in a world where lockdown became a way of life - reflected positively on the liberation it has given them and those they work with. It has freed them from the shackles and delays of decision-making systems, allowing them and their teams to respond on the spot, in an instant.
At NDTi we often talk about trust and brave leadership, you’ll hear us speak about going with your instinct, doing the right thing, being brave, open and accountable. This is what leadership is about, it’s about trust and giving yourself and others the authority to respond and react at pace, owning your decisions. Those leaders who have worked in control-based systems are now rethinking how they and their teams work, how they don’t want to go back to how things were before. This is a seismic shift in the way many leaders think about doing things, one which questions and challenges how they will approach their roles in the future. Many are convinced that a new, COVID-19 impacted world should be one where leaders are not frightened, where they feel trusted and give trust and authority to others, able to change things, to make and own a decision.
These are just two observations and there are many more things that we are learning as we rapidly adapt as a society to the changes this pandemic has brought about. That learning will continue as the unprecedented economic and social impact of COVID-19 unfolds. This impact will stay with us for years and it means that we need to think, act and lead differently within what will be a long road of hardship and hard decisions.
How we respond to this individually and collectively will be key. We must not lose this opportunity to value and embrace the change that liberates leaders and communities to support each other, thrive and make the right decisions for them and those they help.
Paul Marshall is the Chief Executive at the National Development Team for Inclusion (NDTi)
NDTi is an organisation that promotes equal and inclusive lives for people in their communities, particularly where ageing or disability are issues
Paul Marshall's blog is a personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the views of the NDTi.
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