March 6, 2011

Running with Good Ideas

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Leadership at 3:14 am by Sue Hine

Factors that make a difference for good ideas to take centre stage: leadership; chance; participatory decision-making; money – and humility to learn from people on the ground.

I can’t remember where I found this quote, or its context, and nor did I note its author.  I latched on to the words and pinned the statement to the wall in my office.  It has become a kind of mantra.

Of course leadership is important in getting good ideas off the ground.  We always need people to lead by example, to set a standard, stir the pot, to take charge and to steer us in directions that might have been beyond our courage.  We can also be a leader by facilitating and encouraging others to fulfil their dreams.  That’s a pushing sort of leadership, and let us not deny its effectiveness.  Leadership comes in different forms and there is plenty of literature to give us a steer.

Of course money is a big one – we do not get anywhere without it these days.  A dollop of money can be just the stimulus to put a good idea into action.  I am mindful however that kitchen-table committees established the major institutions of IHC, CCS, Play Centres and Parents Centre, long before government contracts and philanthropic support were readily available. 

Of course, participatory decision-making was just what you did back then, and is no less important in organisations right now.  When you share common goals and values then sharing in decision-making is plain commonsense.

Chance is a fine thing, so they say.  You might have the good ideas, the best leadership, a band of willing supporters and enough funding to cover photocopying and telephone calls.  All you need now is a bit of luck, like being in the right place at the right time to mobilise community action.  Or to strike the right political moment when governments are willing to listen; when what you offer is what government wants; and when donor organisations put your bright idea on their agenda. 

It’s that last factor that sticks with me: humility to learn from people on the ground.  ‘Humility’ is a really tricky word.  My desk-bound dictionary offers a meaning of ‘humble’ as having or showing a low estimate of one’s own importance.  Hello, I think, so this is where managers/leaders of volunteers get their low self-esteem from.  Then I find an article that says ‘Humility is the most beautiful word in the English language’, describing its effectiveness in leading organisations.  Other sources tell me ‘humility’ is a universal religious virtue.  So I am discarding my dictionary and the Uriah Heep connotations, and taking up words like ‘modesty’, and ‘unpretentiousness’.  I learn about the behaviours of humility: recognising the talents of others, acknowledging my own limitations, and not reaching for what is beyond my grasp.  (That way leads to the deadly sin of Pride, the kind that brought the downfall of Faustus and many another.)

So ‘humility’ brings me full circle back to ‘leadership’, and I have to conclude that in managing volunteers you cannot have one without the other.  When you think about our philosophy and practice there is no other way.

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