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Leading With Vulnerability in Uncertain Times

The Fundraiser

You may have been inspired by Emily Petty’s recent article on how to explore leading with vulnerability, and taken on her challenge to know yourself, become aware of the emotions you feel at work and be able to express these in a way that builds trust, reduces hierarchies and empowers your team.

I know how much my leadership deepened when I worked on knowing myself and my emotions; and I wanted to share two more steps we can all take to embrace a changing way of leadership, something that feels especially important right now when the fundraising sector is under such pressure and uncertainty.

(1) Lead with empathy – empathy is the willingness and commitment to connect at the thinking and feeling level to understand another person’s perspective and experience.

As an empathic leader, I focus on understanding the reality my staff face, their thoughts and their feelings, to ensure they feel heard and understood. This is not the same as agreeing with them or doing exactly what they think or feel should be done – it is about patiently and sincerely seeing the world through their eyes and then using this information to help me prioritise actions that can be taken.

Empathy has significant benefits - it improves productivity as staff feel heard and that any barriers to their work are understood; it increases staff retention and engagement as staff feel seen and valued; and it aids effective collaboration as individuals and groups working together more easily understand each others perspectives and motivations.

To develop your empathy, get curious and imagine what it would be like to ‘walk in the shoes’ of a staff member. I use activities like ‘the best of me’ where I invite a staff member to share what helps them or holds them back of being their best selves at work.

Practice active listening. This is a deliberate act that involves me being fully present, asking myself ‘am I listening or am I waiting to speak?’, using open questions, reflecting back what someone has said and allowing some silence or encouraging someone to share more.

(2) Reflect on power and privilege - sadly, the charity sector has a long way to go to fully address issues of diversity, equality and inclusion. Research by the Institute of Fundraising’s Change Collective identified four inequalities in fundraising, encompassing race, disability, sexuality and gender.

As vulnerable leaders, we have duty to act on issues of power and privilege in relation to diversity and inclusion – partly because there are tangible benefits to performance, with research by Harvard Business Review showing that companies with high level of gender and ethnic diversity out-perform other companies by between 20-30%; also because it is the right thing to do to ensure everyone in society, our sector, our charities and our teams have the same access to opportunities, are treated fairly and work in environments where they are safe and protected from discrimination or harm.

It is easy, at least for me, to feel overwhelmed once I start to think about how much needs to change in relation to power and privilege, the complex issues of diversity and inclusion and the systemic inequalities built into our society that I can’t do anything about on my own.

To navigate these complexities, I am focusing on:

  • Being willing to get uncomfortable – slowing down my automatic thinking processes to avoid unconscious bias when making assessments and decisions, particularly those affecting groups impacted by inequality. 
  • Standing up and naming the inequalities that I see – if I want to work in a team, charity and sector that stands against inequality, then I need to stand up myself, even if this makes me more vulnerable where it might go against the current culture.
  • Focusing on what is in my control to change – finding small actions can I take to help build and maintain an environment where staff feel safe and protected because everyone understands what is appropriate
  • Listening -  which starts with asking better questions from a place of genuine interest and motivation to want to understand, being open to hear practices are causing harm without getting defensive and reflecting on what is in my control to do about them. 
  • Asking for help - the greatest sign of strength I can show as a vulnerable leader is to admit when I don’t know enough about an issue and then take action to improve my learning.

Vulnerable leadership takes time and effort – and can be transformative for the self and others. Who can you reach out to today to help you take the next steps on your journey to leading with vulnerability?

Karen Bolton is a fundraising consultant and person-centred counsellor. She has been working in the charity sector for over 20 years and is passionate about social change, working with people to maintain high performing teams and recognising the value of staff satisfaction to success.

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