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  • Writer's pictureStu Dexter

The Case for Anti-Leadership

Updated: Mar 24, 2022

When I became a charity CEO back in January 2010 there was no training manual. I had picked up some of the technical stuff over the previous 10 years but I didn’t know what a CEO actually did. My job description wasn’t much help, and it very quickly became apparent that a CEO of a £500,000 a year charity was different to a CEO of a £3m a year charity, which was different to a CEO of a £20m a year charity and, well, the private sector was something different altogether.

I started looking for some training. Some development options and there wasn’t much around. I had previously embarked on an ILM Leadership Diploma which was OK if you wanted to learn about cost-benefit analysis, but was run just to get people to pass the course. I participated in a one day a month, year-long leadership programme which was very sector-specific and was made up of 12 (mostly excellent) workshops. I contacted Newcastle University Business School and found myself a mentor. In 2017 I was made a Clore Social Leadership Fellow. All of this helped me make sense of what it was to be a leader, but I still had a nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right.

The Collective Impact Agency was birthed over many cups of coffee and a general feeling that things could be better, that things weren’t quite right. We felt that the system could work better, we felt that people and organisations could work together better, and we felt that leadership training could be better. This was how Anti-Leadership Training came about.

The problem with all the leadership programmes I’ve seen is that they focus on the individual, but outcomes are provided by systems. Why help one person develop their understanding of leadership without offering that opportunity to the whole team? We felt that this led to the phenomenon whereby people undergo a leadership programme then soon after look for a new job as they had changed but the wider oganisation they returned to had not.

At CIA we reject the notion of the heroic leader. We don’t believe in the myth of the superhero CEO, and we believe that it is people coming together with a shared purpose that affects real change. We believe that leadership is a collective endeavour and we call this ‘Anti-Leadership’.

We want to talk about relationships, culture and the way a group learns and grows together, rather than the individuals. We want to work with teams, rather than just ‘the person at the top’. We want to help groups to find and grow their strengths, to work with them as they craft their culture. With all this in mind, we developed a programme to do just that. We’ve drawn on a raft of research, debate, experience of both well-functioning and poorly-functioning organisations and our experience of just being human.

We start with two content-and-activity days, supporting the group to draw on what they’re learning to develop a plan that will help them to implement what has been covered. Two to three months later, we get together again to learn from the intervening months of trial and exploration, develop the next phase of that plan, then repeat the same process of collective learning and reflection a few months after that. Every programme is exciting to deliver because it’s different every time, unique and bespoke to every organisation.

I wish that I could have undergone Anti-Leadership training with colleagues earlier in my leadership journey to foster that collective sense of helping people make a difference to their lives. And remember: It’s no good if you’re good at what you do but what you do does no good.

If you want to hear more about the concept and principles of anti-leadership, head on over to our events page to see if we’ve an upcoming webinar about it – open to anyone who’s curious about the ideas!

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