There was much to ponder following the slow motion car crash recorded in the documentary on Kid’s company last week, but what struck me most was the importance of the personal pronoun.
Throughout the film, Camila Batmanghelidjh used “I” when describing pretty much every aspect of the charity’s operation, except, tellingly, when the darkest hour was reached and the charity was about to close. That’s when it changed to “we”.
There were so many interesting issues raised by the documentary, and many, many people and organisations are busy pontificating on them.
From my perspective, whatever the whys and wherefores of the demise of Kid’s Company, it is a compelling case study on the nature of leadership and communications, particularly in the voluntary sector, a contrasting companion piece to Age UK and how they have reacted to the criticism of their relationship with E.On by the Sun this week.
Back to Camila first. There is something incredibly compelling about a charismatic leader, someone who seems impervious to the slings and arrows of everyday life, coated in Teflon confidence and able to, not rise above, but simply sit beyond mundane reality.
The trouble with such an approach to leadership is that it leaves everyone else to deal with all that pesky reality stuff. Charismatic leaders who communicate and engage like Camila can be brilliant at inspiring others, at getting staff to perform way beyond what they think they are capable of, at getting donors and partners to buy into a narrative and get involved. In many ways they are infinitely preferable to the bloodless and faceless managerial type of leader, particularly when it comes to social change.
However, it’s really very handy to have one of those as your number two, a sober yin to the yang of the person adept at the vision thing but not so hot on governance and excel. In this case that person clearly wasn’t Alan Yentob.
Leadership is often framed in the singular but it is most effective in the plural. Leadership at its best is imbued in the culture of an organisation so that many people within it can and do fill a leadership role, whatever their position in the hierarchy. It is unhealthy when all eyes are turned to just one person for direction, inspiration and answers.
That is even more important when it comes to communicating with the outside world. Most organisations are layered with their own complexities, a product of all the issues, people, suppliers, customers, stakeholders and services that make them up. Channelling all communications through a single representative of an organisation is reductive and never helps others really understand what it does and what it is about. You need multiple voices to truly and clearly represent an organisation.
The one really big exception to that is when things go wrong. In those circumstances, the person in the most senior position needs to front up, to be accountable for the organisation. That is when the “we” should be replaced with the “I” and the opposite appeared to happen with Kid’s Company.
Moving onto Age UK, they chose not to put someone forward as a spokesperson on the Today Programme to answer the criticism of them in the Sun’s investigation. There may have been very good reasons for them making that decision, and they really need to have been good because it really left them open to further criticism because of the vacuum of leadership it created. It didn’t help having Sir Stephen Bubb stepping in for them as it was impossible for him to respond with any confidence on the specific allegations and left him sounding defensive about a supposed media agenda against charities.
Age UK went into broadcast mode on Twitter very quickly after the story broke, pointing to a statement on its website. It is very clear and factual but could have been even more powerful if it both explained in more detail what the money from commercial activities helped the charity to do for older people, and if it had been from a named person.
It is very easy to view a charity the size of Age UK as a faceless organisation driven simply to maximise income, when the reality is, as with pretty much every charity I’ve ever worked with, it is a collection of people passionate about a specific cause or issue and committed to doing the best job possible. The simple expedient of making sure every communication comes from a person rather than a corporate entity can go a long way to encouraging people to see that reality.
I don’t believe the media has it in for charities, but I do believe that charities are facing what is perhaps an unprecedented crisis in public trust and confidence caused by a number of factors including critical media coverage but also, crucially, bad practice on the part of some high profile charities.
Leadership communications has a really important role to play in helping to repair the damage that is being caused. However, it won’t be successful if it comes in the form of an individual figure telling us everything it going to be okay, it will only come through the power of the collective of voices stating the case for individual charities and the sector as a whole, talking openly about the problems and failures and the action being taken to address them.
Peter Gilheany is PR director of Forster Communications