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Leadership and the Murmurations of Starlings

Leadership and the Murmurations of Starlings

by Dawn Austwick, CEO, Big Lottery Fund

According to McKinsey or some other enlightened management consultants, 40% of what we Chief Executives do will be automated in our digitally enabled, AI-driven, global future. Hurrah — that’s 40% more time to spend on relationships, having fun, or heaven forfend, going to the beach. Having just read about a Swedish hospital where productivity and well-being went up when hours went down that sounds like a win-win.

Of course the question this proposition really begs is “what’s the point of leadership”? Does it change in this new world order? Old approach, new context? I’ve long thought that the role of the leader is to enable their team or organisation to act like those magnificent birds flocking at sunset. In these murmurations the birds, often starlings, act in minutely calibrated unison — they avoid the pylons; don’t crash into the ground or each other; stretch and shrink their shape; turn, reverse, accelerate, slow down, and head off on the journey south adjusting to circumstance and each other as they go.

How can this happen in an organisation? Well there’s a football analogy here: to make the most of all that exceptional expensive talent playing for the team, the manager has to invest time, reflection, energy, and orchestration to get everyone on the song sheet and in tune. In the future all that automated data and 21st century comms will be our new tools. These tools can't create the performance on the pitch, but they can free up time to focus on the added value.

The hidden part of that equation, what we don’t see the football managers doing on the television, is what lies beneath the performance — a shared understanding of purpose, values, and direction, honed to the point where choices become intuitive and split second: back to the starlings. This is the enduring territory of leadership regardless of time or place.  Of course, it requires an acute understanding of context, the 21st century version of reading the tea leaves, and the ancient art of strategy.

But I would add a further and critical dimension to leadership in our sector:  the principle of generosity.  If we are to be mission driven, our actions have to constantly take us as close as possible to achieving the common good of our mission. The Terence Higgins Trust has adopted this generous leadership approach: when a contract comes up they don’t ask the question ‘how can we win this?’ Instead they ask ‘who would do this best and how can we help them win it?’  Charities like Scope and the Children’s Society are looking not at how they can grow their own organisations, but how they can make the greatest contribution to their mission in the complex ecology in which they operate.

And in order to be generous leaders I would add a quality that is little taught and hard earned – the skill of listening.  Amplify, when working in Belfast, said it better: ‘We trod carefully and listened well’.

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