5 April 2018

Everyone agrees that leadership matters. But what matters to leadership? That’s the stuff of more debate.

Certainly, a lot of preconceived notions exist. There are some who think that a leader is a certain type of person – often a man and often white – and that they should come from a certain type of background and education. They may think that diversity is a nice thing in principle, but leadership means having the right people in the right room. A certain type of people and a certain type of room.

But this isn’t the only preconception. Alison Inman has recently pointed out that in our sector top positions are dominated by people with a finance or development background. Far fewer chief executives and chairs come from maintenance and repairs, for example. We can speculate about what we might be losing out on because of lack of diversity in general. But after the catastrophe of Grenfell Tower the effect of this disparity of expertise is devastatingly clear.

We also get stereotypes from the wider culture. In the movies, the leader is a hero – Daniel Craig or Idris Elba – dashing, charismatic, tough as hell, and always having the last word. In the theatre it’s a Henry V or a Julius Caesar – dominating and certain. Hamlet could see both sides of the question, and look what happened to him. In politics, the kind of person we imagine as the perfect leader is just as narrow: the looks of a Kennedy, the guts of a Thatcher, the voice of an Obama.

But there has always been another way of looking at it. The American politician Ralph Nader once said “the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers”. Eugene Debs told his supporters, when he ran for President in 1912, that he wouldn’t lead them into the Promised Land, even if he could, because if they could be led in by him today then another fellow could come along and lead them straight back out again tomorrow.

Leadership implies a relationship with other people, and people are a pretty diverse crowd. What motivates and inspires one will repel and infuriate another – as even a cursory glance at Twitter will confirm. So organisations should focus less on the Winston Churchill figure in the chief executive’s office, and more on developing a varied and complementary group of leaders at every level of the business.

“The work of a team should always embrace a great player but the great player must always work,” said Sir Alex Ferguson and it has to be our motto as we face the future as a sector. Tackling the housing crisis will require strong leadership like nothing we’ve seen before and we can’t wait for that to fall out of the sky. By focusing on personal development, diversity, communication and relationship building we can empower the next generation to take on the next challenges.

At Future Housing Leaders 2018, the National Housing Federation will offer colleagues of all ages who aspire to lead within their organisations, a unique, immersive experience tailored to bring out the potential and overcome the challenges of the future.

Find out more about the event.

Robert Fox

Robert Fox is a telemarketing executive at the National Housing Federation.

Is a leader born or made?