Irene Sobowale: Age, experience and background are no longer the only prerequisites for good leaders

16 Jul 2019 Voices

Leadership positions in the charity sector are disproportionately white and speaking or writing opportunities often reflect this inequality. ACEVO and Civil Society have curated a series of articles by BAME leaders on the question ‘What does the future of civil society leadership look like?’ in order to profile a greater breadth of the diversity of talent in the sector. Today we hear from Irene Sobowale, chief executive of The Disabilities Trust, about moving forward together. 

In today’s ever-changing world how does one even begin to predict with accuracy what the future of civil society leadership will look like?  Whilst I have no clear precept for the future of leadership in general, I do know what I would like my own to look like.

Looking back on my own evolution, as a daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend, accountant and latterly CEO of The Disabilities Trust, I had never thought much about leadership – good or bad.  I spent over 20 years working in the financial services industry before l came into the health and social care sector six years ago, following a meeting with the then CEO of the Trust. 

I spent an hour and a half talking to him and walked out of his office knowing that whatever happened, l wanted to become a part of this great organisation; an organisation that makes such a difference and has such an impact on so many people's lives. I quit financial services and joined the Trust, initially as the finance director, recognising that although l knew little about the health and social care sector, l knew a lot about finance and that l could bring everything l had learnt over the previous 20 years into my new role. 

It felt like l had finally come home!  

Two years later, l was appointed as the CEO - easily the high point of my career to date. I remain the passionate leader of an organisation that I am proud to serve. 

No template for leadership 

And so on to leadership; what is a leader and what should civil society leadership look like? Early on, l came to the realisation that there is no template for what leadership should look like - whether in civil society or elsewhere.  

A leader is defined as any individual who has the power to influence, motivate and even exhort their peers and people in general to achieve their set goals. I did not have vast experience in the sector when I took up my current role, nor am l a "typical, ambitious, careerist, leader", planning each step of my career in a bid to reach a pre-determined pinnacle. 

But l have several attributes that I think are needed in a leader; a clear vision, passion, emotional intelligence, commitment, positivity. To those I'd add flexibility, influence and not being afraid to roll up my sleeves and get stuck in.

We are going through a period of unprecedented change - in the world, in our country, in our sector; socially, technologically, financially and politically.  

Never has there been so much uncertainty, on so many levels, affecting so many aspects of our lives - and all at record-breaking pace. There is no precedent to rely on, no blueprint to follow, but we have to be nimble, courageous, willing to embrace change, to take a step into the unknown. 

We have to be resilient and be guided by our values and beliefs; to be driven by and work for the benefit of our people; our customers, our staff as we work our way through this brave new world of artificial intelligence and robotics, crypto currencies and whatever comes next. 

A world which is no longer only driven by what leaders want or think is best, but one that recognises and taps into the abilities, experience, knowledge and expertise of everyone within our space from the experienced to the “inexperienced”; all working towards the greater good.

Leaders do not need to have all the answers

Leaders do not need to know it all or have all the answers. They never did, but now we acknowledge it and are not afraid to say so out loud. Age, experience and background are no longer the only pre-requisites for good leaders. 

Co-production is a buzzword that is in common parlance at the moment, typically used in the context of service providers and service users; it is a word that could be broadened to include management and staff, resource utilisation and resource creation...; a meeting of minds coming together to find shared solutions.  

The focus needs to shift, from “them and us” to “we”. Together we will achieve great outcomes, for ourselves, our society, our world.  Leaders need to actively listen and move forward boldly with others into the new world, in whatever form it takes. 

Irene Sobowale is chief executive of The Disabilities Trust

The second article in this series will be published next Tuesday, 23 July.

Civil Society Media's Charity People & Culture Conference takes place in September and this year the overall theme is 'Wellbeing & inclusion in modernisation'. View the programme and book online here.



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