Leaders don’t do leadership programmes
How vulnerability helped Year Here flip Fellowship conventions
7 years ago, I was awarded a Clore Fellowship. I had, somewhat recklessly, quit my job a few months before so the £20,000 bursary was a total godsend.
During the first residential week, I swiftly became seen as the naughty kid in the class. I was gearing up to Year Here’s Downing Street launch so I was emailing and making phone calls during breaks. The facilitator called me out for being distracted and the petulant child inside my head protested: ‘This is a leadership programme, let me lead!’
Every evening we heard the career stories of various charity Chief Execs. They were generally impressive and interesting. One pattern I noticed, though, was that few had ever partaken in something like the fellowship I was on. They had just cracked on, learnt from mentors and found their own reflection opportunities as they stepped into more and more responsibility.
A worrying thought came to me:
Maybe real leaders don’t do leadership programmes.
What if leadership programmes attracted people who had fallen in love with the idea of development rather than having fallen in love with the work itself?
This was particularly problematic given that I was on the brink of launching my own leadership programme. How could Year Here really work if it fit the same mould that I was questioning?
(I should say here that the Fellowship was an incredible opportunity in lots of ways ways and I’m sure that I wasn’t the easiest person to work with — so take this as my apology, Clore team).
After endless debates, often alcohol-facilitated, and a series of programme design decisions, I think we’ve managed to create a leadership programme that genuinely transforms participants’ potential to drive ambitious, meaningful change.
The thread running through these design decisions is vulnerability.
I realise that I might lose a few people at this point. Maybe ‘vulnerability’ sounds weak, fluffy, self-indulgent or irrelevant in the context of leadership.
Well, reader, I ask you to withhold your scepticism and allow me persuade you that vulnerability is, in fact, essential to leadership development.
There is no growth without the prospect of failure.
During the programme, our Fellows take part in over 400 hours of social innovation training. While this is important, Year Here is ultimately not about the training per se. The word training makes us think of knowledge acquisition and skill development, rather than the development of a bold leadership style — with a vision for how to improve the world, an ability to inspire others, and a tenaciousness that means you bring your ideas to fruition.
Our long-time Faculty member Nick Nielsen has taught us that Year Here’s curriculum and pedagogy enables vertical development, while most traditional training is geared towards horizontal development. Vertical development is about transforming ones mindset to deal with evermore complex problems, integrating different ways of thinking and seeing the world. If horizontal development is getting new apps, vertical development is upgrading your whole operating system.
Vertical development is not possible without opportunities for a) out-of-comfort-zone practical application, and b) deep reflection.
Growing as a leader means throwing ourselves into new situations, choosing courage over comfort, as Brené Brown would say. One of the Fellows’ first challenges is to lead an innovation project: a practical enhancement of the frontline service in which they are embedded for the first few months of the year. We challenge them to design something with legacy, like a partnership that helps homeless hostel residents find accommodation, or an idea to bring revenue into a cash-strapped older people’s day centre. Having now seen over 100 of them I know that innovation projects can fail. In fact, I would hazard that the majority fail to pass the litmus test of still being operational a year after the Fellow has finished the placement. But setting the bar high, such that the chances are actually against you meeting it, is intentional.
Failure has become one of those annoying buzzwords in TED talks and blogs – it’s as if we’re all supposed to be rolling around, fucking up on purpose. But operating in a space where failure is a very real possibility — and the vulnerability sparked by that prospect accompanies our every action — is a prerequisite for growth.
The second foundation of vertical development, deep reflection, is not possible without emotional vulnerability.
Our unique perceptions of the world can only be understood through enquiry, by interrogating our own behaviour, emotion and values. This reflective practice is about making the subject of our experience the object of our enquiry. Integrating new perspectives might mean receiving tough feedback or recognising your own filters and biases. It’s often exposing and scary work — but it can also be thrilling and powerful.
We, as the Year Here team, need to ‘go there’ too — both because role modelling is a powerful pedagogical tool and because we can’t expect people to be vulnerable with us if we aren’t prepared to do the same. I’ve been open with Fellows about my worries, my frustrations, my mental health, my moments when I feel completely stuck. Time and again, I see that vulnerability breeds a closeness and trust which enables us to dig deeper and, eventually, to build something of real value.
No one has the answers.
When it comes to changing the world, there are no inviolable facts. Society is constantly changing so why should our responses to social issues remain static and unquestioned?
We, very intentionally, bring different view points and philosophies into our curriculum — displaying a kind of intellectual vulnerability if you will. In some cases, our faculty are diametrically opposed on big questions: Should people be able to make profit from social impact endeavours? Is regeneration a good thing or just gentrification in sheep’s clothing? How do we solve the housing crisis?
During the second phase of the programme, the consulting project, I often ask Fellows to imagine how various faculty members would approach the same brief. Jess Steele’s decades-long grassroots struggle to save Hastings Pier might mean she would decide to galvanise local people to build a power base. Aviv Katz would lead a service design process — with user journey mapping, personas and prototypes all over our studio walls. Our partners Bain and Company would conduct water-tight analyses and produce beautiful powerpoint decks to persuade the client to enact their strategy. And serial creative entrepreneur, Sophie Howarth, would heed the words of Augusto Boal when he said “It is forbidden to walk on the grass. It is not forbidden to fly over the grass” and come up with an imaginative, novel approach.
We’re saying to our Fellows: It’s on you to find your own way. The more immersed you are in the debate, the more alive you are to the contradictions, the challenges and the critiques, the better you will lead. I think, as a teacher and mentor, there is tremendous power in saying “I don’t know”. I see it as my responsibility to be totally open about my own questions and doubts.
It’s the portfolio, not the piece of paper.
It’s not just our curriculum or our pedagogy that’s different. We are a postgraduate course but we don’t have professors, a campus or a tuition fee. We’re not even accredited. We are institutionally vulnerable. “Er, how is it a course if you’re not a university?”, “what kind of qualification do Fellows get at the end” we are asked ad nauseam.
In fact, we did toy with the idea of becoming a Master’s degree back in 2014. We realised it was a bad idea for a bunch of reasons but, most importantly, we realised that it would have been a cowardly choice. It was much braver for us to stand alone, to own the fact that we think higher education can be done differently; that it can be grounded in the real world not in an academic ivory tower; and that it can be cheaper for the learner too.
We love the fact that Year Here isn’t accredited. There is no prize at the end. It’s about the portfolio you build. Our lack of accreditation means our Fellows are doing it for the right reasons, not for external validation. In the final phase of the programme, Fellows are challenged to come up with their own social enterprise idea. About half go on to found that venture after graduating from Year Here. What greater testament to what you’ve learnt than that?
Everybody’s winging it all the time.
A 2014 Guardian piece beautifully unpacks the cognitive dissonance that emerges when powerful institutions and individuals — from the New York Times to Ed Miliband — show their flaws:
“We need [institutions] to appear ultra-competent because we derive much psychological security from the belief that somewhere, in the highest echelons of society, there are some near-infallible adults in charge.”
I guess, over the years, Year Here has become an institution for many people. We form a huge part of Fellows’ lives for a year or more. And we proudly don’t have all the answers. In bearing our vulnerability — emotionally, intellectually and institutionally — I hope we transfer power and agency to the Fellows.
I’ve seen the moment of realisation when they see that everyone (even, or perhaps especially, the visionary, the powerful and the courageous) is winging it all the time.
They think to themselves: ‘hey, maybe I could wing it too…’
And with that realisation, acquired while participating in a leadership programme, they move into position to genuinely lead.