Leadership in campaigning – some thoughts

The further I’ve gone in my career the more I’ve been thinking about what leadership in campaigning looks like and the more I’ve found that there aren’t easy answers out there.
So it was great to be asked by Jim Coe to chat with him about some of my thoughts about leadership and campaigning a few months ago. You can listen to the whole podcast here, but preparing to speak with Jim and thinking about the topic has got me thinking.
There is of course a legal and project management element to campaign leadership – it’s important to know about the latest regulations from the Charity Commission, or how to manage a budget, or ensure good external stakeholder relations. But what I don’t find is writing about how to lead teams of campaigners or campaigns.
On leadership, I’ve been really inspired and informed by the writing of Margaret Wheatley, who wrote this excellent and very accessible paper (it’s only 6 pages long) on ‘host leadership’ a few years ago.
Most of us aren’t going to the be the ‘heroes’ who are the ‘face’ of a campaign or a cause – indeed I think there is a whole post to write about if the model of campaigns with a ‘figurehead’ leader is largely redundant.
But for those of us in leadership roles in campaigning it’s a really important paper to read, because it speaks to the challenge of managing and leading talented individuals who are hungry to change the world, working in complex (and often changing) situations where plans evolve and the external environment can shift at a moments notice.
So I’m really putting some thoughts out here, not to present them as a ‘blueprint’ but to spark a conversation amongst others in leadership roles in campaigning.
As a campaign leader I’ve found the following important;
1 – Help those around you make sense of the story – Helping others to step back from the now and understand how does a specific win or campaign fit into the bigger picture of the change that you’re going to achieve, how does that win further the cause that you’re all working for.
2 – Intentionally invest in others – This isn’t unique to leading campaigners, but there can be so much ‘doing’ in campaigning that it’s hard to find the time to pause and make sure people are investing in their personal development. What that looks like will be different for different people – some will appreciate being encouraged to find a mentor, others will need a recommendation of a good book to read, but holding the space for others to flourish by investing time in them means we continue to cultivate generations of campaigners.
3 – Model what you’d expect from others – Let’s be honest, burnout is a huge problem for campaigners. One of the hardest things that I find about leading a team is trying to model what the right balance looks like – I’m a workaholic. I know I don’t expect others to be ‘always on’ but often in campaigning its hard to switch off. It’s easy to tell others to do it, but as I’ve stepped into leadership I’ve become more and more aware that unless you ‘walk the walk’ you can’t expect to ‘talk the talk’.
4 – Understand my privilege – I was fortunate to spend a day thinking about power and privilege early in my career – it was insightful in helping me to think about this and challenge my approaches. I’ve still a lot to learn, but those of us in leadership need to be aware of our privilege. This from NEON is a really helpful resource to start to think about this.
5 – Recognise weaknesses – None of us are good at everything – so as much as we might not like to admit it – we need to be vulnerable to others including those we lead about what we’re not good at. I’ve found that people respect you for it.
6 – Assemble a team around you – Some of those I most admire in campaigning are individuals like Ralph Abernathy and Bayard Rustin they’re not household names, but they’re those who stood around Martin Luther King as he ‘led’ the civil rights movement. The one question I often encourage people to ask when they’re applying for another job is to ask their potential future line manager ‘who do they go to when they don’t have the answer’. Why? Because the best leaders I’ve ever worked with have had people around them to council and challenge them – leaders who think they know it all invariably fail.
7 – Create the space to be curious and ask ‘why’ – Like taking time out or investing in development, the space for evaluation is often lost in our busyness. Evaluation is more than just completing the indicators form at the end of a project. Campaign leaders need to be hosting those around them to ask some of the questions that Duncan Green was encouraging us to think about – to be curious about why change is happening or share rumours.
8 – Pass it on – I’ve written before about the importance of mentoring and coaching – which means those of us in leadership need to be generous in offering to do just that to those who are a step or two back in their campaign leadership journey. Not sure where to start Campaign Bootcamp has a mentoring scheme that’s always looking for people.
I’ve very much written this to start to kick off a conversation about leadership in campaigning, so please do comment below on what else I’ve missed.

5 thoughts on “Leadership in campaigning – some thoughts”

  1. I think that’s a really good and thoughtful piece Tom.
    You’re right, that article by Margaret Wheatley is FANTASTIC – as you say, everyone should read it.
    I think it’s important for managers to be honest (with themselves and others) about how little they can actually control – even if it was a good thing to try.
    I’ve always believed leadership can and does come from anywhere in a movement (or a good organisation).
    I think the managerialism that’s so prevalent in the NGO world today is really misguided and counter-productive. In my opinon we should avoid using managerialist language/terminology as much as possible, and instead use the language of movements and activism.
    Thanks for the blog.

    1. Thanks Martin. Great additions. Appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts – I certainly reflected on my time working with you to help write this.

  2. Hi Tom, am really enjoying your blogs having only just discovered them. I’m doing a lot of work on leadership in campaigning, but one thing I think is missing from your advice above is a gender lens. Non profits – certainly in the UK – are disproportionately made up of women, and there are specific barriers/challenges that women in particular face as they try to navigate a path towards leadership. These aren’t just structural challenges such as unpaid care work, but also internal forces and social conditioning that need to be overcome. Any mentor needs a) understand these dynamics and b) develop ways to navigate them. Often the default paradigm for leadership can be quite ‘male’ – so I’m always very keen to bring in ideas around feminist leadership approaches and what they mean in practice.

    1. Thanks. I’m glad you’re finding the posts useful. I think that’s a really important point to reflect on. Have you found anything useful that you’d encourage people to be reading?

  3. Hello Tom thanks for sharing and I think this point :
    – Recognize weaknesses is the most important in leadership because its help us to see on what we are good and on what we need to improve and ask for help.

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