The Power of Small: Leadership Lessons from the Learning Club

12 June 2020

Louise Ennis (Community First Yorkshire) and Catherine Oakley (The Rowntree Society) are co-facilitators of the North Yorkshire learning club, launched by Community First Yorkshire and the Open University’s Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership to provide opportunities for sector employees to develop energetic, practical and thoughtful leadership practice. In preparation for Small Charity Week they have been interviewed by the Open University to share the group’s learning.

Watch this video of their conversation.


Why did you start a leadership learning club?

Louise: It was a way to offer the Open University’s Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership’s free, accessible leadership programmes to everyone in our sector – not just larger organisations and existing leaders.

The club complements the Centre’s online courses on ‘Developing Leadership Practice in the Voluntary Sector’ and ‘Collaborative Leadership’ with face-to-face sharing sessions where we explore our thoughts and experiences and discuss course activities as a group.

We’ve had to move online during the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions but that has enabled the club to keep going, and it’s been interesting to study leadership against this backdrop.

Catherine: We are all very aware of how important leadership is in the voluntary sector, but the opportunity to network and access training can be limited alongside so many other time and financial pressures, particularly for smaller charities and community groups.

The great thing about our club is that it’s peer-led, so we take it in turns to facilitate the sessions and we run it at a time and pace that suits us. It’s relaxed, informal and a safe space for us to share experiences and learning. Fellow participants have also been able to use it to learn more about starting a career in the sector or moving into formal leadership positions.

If someone had asked you to define leadership before the course, what would you have said?

Catherine: Well, I would have struggled not to imagine a single person. Someone with certain qualities. A charismatic and inspirational figure. I would also have thought about someone senior – a key-decision maker with a lot of power.

Louise: I was expecting to learn about personal leadership styles, how to sell a vision, and bring people with you as a strong leader.

Catherine: One of the first things we covered was the fact that you don’t need to be in a senior or managerial role to be a ‘leader’. Leadership isn’t a set of innate qualities, but a practice you can learn and nurture consciously.

Louise: I think the course has been a real eye-opener for all of us because it focuses instead on leadership as something that’s shared. It can apply to anyone, not just formal leaders or CEOs.

Catherine: Once I had made that shift in my mind from leadership being the remit of one individual to it being a practice that anyone can take on, it took root. It’s changed my perception of what being a leader means in ways that will be hard to ‘un-learn’ or ‘un-see’.

The alternative to the ‘dominant’ leader model is to seek out diverse voices and perspectives beyond our own ideas and experiences. It feels absolutely fundamental in the context of the renewed urgency of campaigns for racial justice globally now.

Participatory leadership is about ceding power: using the platforms and privileges you have to open up new channels for the empowerment of marginalised and oppressed individuals. And not just through ‘consultation’, or through peripheral advisory groups, but at every level of an organisation, whatever it’s size.

Louise: I’ve found it so helpful to discuss with others what collaborative and participative leadership mean in practice. A democratic approach to leadership is about giving everyone a chance to reflect and contribute to difficult decision-making, not about aiming for a unanimous decision. We’ve seen during the Covid-19 pandemic, that smaller voluntary organisations with empowered decision making, have been able to provide a more rapid response on the frontline to communicate with and deliver services to those in need.

It’s not about being a hero and saving the day, it’s about all of us practicing a leadership approach – communicating, collaborating and tackling difficult problems by debating and deciding on a course of action and sticking by it. Looking for the path that will cause maximum benefit with minimum fallout for everyone concerned.

Catherine: We talked about the need to be directive at times and how this is possible within a shared leadership model. It’s about finding a balance, even when the temptation during a crisis can be to move into a totally directive mode because you are under pressure to deliver fast.

What changes from your learning will you introduce to your leadership practice?

Louise: A really strong theme from the courses that I’m building on in my leadership approach is the power of critical reflection. This means building in time to ask questions, consult, discuss and explore options inside and beyond the organisation or even the sector.

We are so solutions-oriented, that we often try to avoid what Grint called ‘wicked’ problems1 – problems that are ongoing and for which there is no perfect answer. By questioning our assumptions and going beyond our own experience, we can make better decisions that everyone is accountable for. Explaining why we are taking a decision and the likely fall out demonstrates clear leadership and direction.

Catherine: I agree about being open. We talked in the club about vulnerability as a positive trait in leadership. A traditional view might identify the leader as the person with the answers, rather than the person asking the questions. It’s difficult to resist these expectations and to identify your own limitations instead. But doing this opens up new possibilities for shared leadership.

In my current role I’ve been getting more comfortable saying to our volunteers, trustees and partners when I don’t have the answers. We can then work together on something that no single one of us could achieve alone.

I am also looking at how I can support colleagues and collaborators to share their ideas at an early stage. We had a really interesting group discussion about feeling pressure at work to put forward fully-formed ideas – the ‘elevator pitch’. We talked instead about the benefits of exploring problems earlier together.

Helpful suggestions from the course material were to hold back from interrupting people if they’re trying to work through something out loud and not to feel self-conscious when this happens to us – and it does happen to me, quite often! Those moments when language starts to falter can be when we are pushing our understanding and ideas forward.

Louise: We talked in the club about being brave and taking that leap into the unknown with partners as well as colleagues. There’s a great quote from the course that ‘Unknowns in leadership practice are most powerfully explored collectively.’

Visit our Leadership Hub to find out more about the OU course.

1 Grint K. (2010) Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions: The Role of Leadership. In: Brookes S., Grint K. (eds) The New Public Leadership Challenge. Palgrave Macmillan, London