New trends and competencies in social leadership

Over recent years, social inequalities, resource shortages and constraints have increased social complexity and NGOs are facing growing challenges.

Institute for Social Innovation

By Mar Cordobés, Ignasi CarrerasMaria Sureda

In today’s VUCA world – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – the third sector needs dynamic and courageous leaders who can lead innovation and rewrite the rules of the game.

Managers need to stop seeing themselves as designers of organisational structures, procedures and rules. They need to go one step further and become orchestra directors, social ambassadors and drivers of dynamic environments that promote autonomy to achieve organisational goals.

As Peter Northouse describes in his book Leadership: theory and practice: "Leadership is a process in which a person influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal."

Leadership has to move beyond leaders, their competencies and capabilities

Leadership has to move beyond leaders, their competencies and capabilities. This is because above leaders there has to be a purpose that justifies their commitment and a team that promotes particular values and attitudes. 

The relationship between these three components – the leader, the purpose and the team – forms a virtuous leadership triangle that drives employees' performance and enables organisations to attain the outcomes they are looking for.

Leadership in NGOs

The third sector calls for strong leadership that can adapt to this new reality in order to tackle social challenges effectively.

In the findings of our study Where is social leadership going?, 82% of the third sector managers surveyed said that good leadership is essential for NGOs to have a social impact.

82% of the third sector managers surveyed said that good leadership is essential for NGOs to have a social impact

To achieve good leadership in the third sector, it is essential to bear in mind the following four key aspects:

1. Purpose-driven leadership

In uncertain times, it is more important than ever to have a guiding light. As a result, terms such as purpose and authentic leadership have become crucial in organisations.

In the third sector we have to consider two purposes: the personal leadership purpose and the organisation’s purpose. Social leaders need to have a leadership purpose that is in sync with the organisation’s overall purpose.

Leaders need to be connected to their own values, act with integrity and think about what motivates them to lead. Nurturing inner life and silence can also help them shed light on their motivations while identifying the core values that guide their work as leaders. 

2. Shared leadership

In the early days of its professionalisation, the social sector was relatively reluctant to talk about “leaders." The idea was associated with the emergence of strong personal figures to the detriment of their teams.

However, more recent trends in new leadership styles (greater empathy, delegation and the ability to inspire and empower teams) have made this term increasingly acceptable. 

This has also been coupled with the development of shared leadership, which is not tied to a single person at the top of the organisation but rather consists of dividing up leadership duties and roles among management teams. 

A good leader needs to be able to switch styles depending on the circumstances

In the results of our study, the majority of respondents (61%) said that shared leadership is the most frequent style in the social sector and only 35% of them believe that vertical leadership is the most common form.

Differences in perception, however, vary by gender. Most men (68%) believe that shared leadership is the dominant trend in the social sector, while among women the figure is slightly lower: 56% of respondents think that shared leadership is most common.

3. Leadership styles

What are the most common leadership styles in the third sector? In social organisations, not all of the six leadership styles defined by Daniel Goleman have the same importance. Some of them should be enhanced, while others should be reduced and even avoided.

Visionary leadership Coaching leadership Affiliative leadership Democratic leadership Pacesetting leadership Authoritative leadership
Presents a common goal that is motivating. Rallies. Contributes to the professional growth of their team members. Builds a positive and cohesive relationship within the team. Encourages participation and drives commitment. Sets challenging goals and puts pressure to achieve them. Sets out a path to follow and forces people to follow it.
The 6 leadership styles in the third sector
Visionary leadership
Style required in the sector.
Coaching leadership  Style required in the sector. Affiliative leadership
Common style in the sector (traditional + current).
Democratic leadership
Common style in the sector (traditional + current).
Pacesetting leadership
Not very advisable in the sector. Very exceptional use.
Authoritative leadership
Not advisable in the sector. Very exceptional use.
Needs enhancing Needs enhancing Strong Strong Reduce Avoid

The most significant aspect of this classification is that each style adapts to a different situation, and so a good leader needs to be able to switch styles depending on the circumstances. 

A leadership style is a tool, not a personality trait

A leadership style is a tool, not a personality trait. Leaders who master four or more styles – especially visionary, democratic, affiliative and coaching styles – achieve better performance and business environments.

4. New competencies for social leadership

Managers in positions of responsibility need to develop emotional competencies (personal and social) as well as new skills that tackle emerging issues to meet the sector’s challenges.

The 12 most relevant emotional competencies for managers are:

  1. Emotional self-awareness
  2. Emotional self-control
  3. Adaptability
  4. Achievement orientation
  5. Positive outlook
  6. Empathy
  7. Organisational awareness
  8. Influence
  9. Mentor and coach (people developer)
  10. Conflict management
  11. Teamwork
  12. Inspiring leadership

Source: Goleman, Boyatzis & McKee (2002)

Our study shows that the following six new competencies are needed to tackle emerging issues:

1. Humility

Humility is an essential competency for any leadership style and role. A humble person strives to listen to and accept others, and the more they accept others, the more they will be valued and listened to.

2. Ability to generate trust and build honest relationships

Organisations are more likely to succeed when their leaders are able to bring out the best in others and make people feel they are being cared for.

Leaders should help members of the organisation understand that individual goals are linked to organisational accomplishments.

3. Resilience

Resilience is the ability to cope with adversity in order to become stronger and achieve a state of professional and personal excellence. This competency is a core attribute in entrepreneurship.

4. Ability to collaborate

This is the capacity to work collaboratively with others, both inside and outside the organisation, including external collaborations with other sectors.

The bedrock of this ability lies in identifying common values that make it easier to collaborate and achieve shared goals. This competency is crucial for leadership to promote cooperation and build alliances.

5. Risk-taking/entrepreneurship

This competency consists of developing innovative solutions, ideas or approaches aimed at improving effectiveness and efficiency to achieve the organisation’s objectives. Risk-taking and an entrepreneurial spirit geared towards innovation are key attributes for leadership in the third sector.

6. Systemic thinking

Systemic thinking is the cornerstone of leaders seeking to understand the root causes, problems and challenges the organisation faces. These are leaders who think and act in a systemic way, looking at the big picture instead of splitting it into isolated parts, and who put people at the centre to improve performance.

All written content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.