Is it time to rethink leadership for development?

Complex situations call for strong leaders. But what if leadership isn't built into the culture? Who should lead and how? Here we explore with Senior Lecturer in Development Studies, Dr Violeta Schubert, leadership in development right now.

Young girl teaching two rural women

Development has never been a simple space, but the last few years has seen the sector face enormous challenges and changes.

On top of macro forces like globalisation, shifting economic power and climate change creating greater complexity, there are a number of scandals and critiques such as the UK Oxfam scandal following sexual harassment allegations in Haiti in 2018 and the subsequent burst of attention to similar issues encouraged by the Me Too movement, and reports from the UN and others exposing poor treatment of workers and problems relating to harassment within the sector that have had a huge impact not only on the way agencies and organisations do things but the fight to restore the loss of trust.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified all of this. Like almost every other sector, says Senior Lecturer in Development Studies, Dr Violeta Schubert, “the current crisis highlights the structural gaps, the unresolved issues in terms of equity, justice, access to health, and the different way people experience the impacts and challenges even before the outbreak of the pandemic.”

Perhaps it is obvious that this calls for strong leadership. But “such growing complexities call for a rethinking about the kind of leadership in development that is needed to address ongoing structural problems and challenges alongside reframing of the standard modes of operation, and what ‘fit for purpose’ means in contexts of volatility, precarity and crisis.”

“The pandemic has shed light on things that have been happening in development for a long time, like fragmentation of work, precarity of funding, the rise of conservative politics, the entry of different kinds of actors with different motives, perspectives and interests. How we look at finance in the sector is going to be even more fundamental as societies face their own precarities,” Dr Schubert adds.

If leadership in development is, as Dr Schubert describes: “People who can articulate and give voice to the things that slip between the cracks in society – things which are either intentionally or unintentionally discriminatory, unfair, or not attended to – and suggest and influence where we go from here, with the fundamental mandate of caring about fairness and justice.” Then this needs to be applied to the current context, reflective of all its complexities.

“A rethinking about what leadership is and the role leaders play in contributing to sustainable, meaningful social transformation is urgently needed”.

And while the changing context was propelling this pre-COVID-19, the current situation has further compelled it, adds Dr Schubert.

“The moment has come to reflect on and think about what leading actually involves in this context, what we mean by leadership, how we construct leadership, how we work leadership in, and where it's directed.

“You have enormous amount of leadership happening. But there isn't really critical thinking about whether we should be approaching leadership in this way. What are we taking for granted? Are we just re-constituting the same old thing because our way of seeing leadership is stuck relative to our notion of what development's about? What is the purpose of leadership? Is it merely the tool through which we make a difference in society? Is it steering the ship? Doesn't that have a bit of an unfair power connotation?”

But the development sector has a funny relationship with leadership. It’s not that it isn’t valued as a concept. “Leadership towards doing good is very strong,” says Dr Schubert. “But attention to leadership development and training within our own space is lacking.”

“While there has been burgeoning interest in leadership, attention has often been given to fostering leadership of marginalised and under-represented people, much less on building development leadership.”

In part, this falls to ethos of the of the sector. “When you're in the game of serving, you don't put a lot of money into your staff. You have to illustrate that the money coming in is going to be directed towards operational costs and helping communities rather than career building and progression because you don't want to look like you are fattening up your own organisation or people”.

There is also the fact that many people can instigate and lead at the community level, create an NGO or project and ask for crowdfunding, which means everyone is a leader in some way, says Dr Schubert. “If you start an NGO, for example, and you've got one or two staff and the rest are volunteers, well, who isn't a leader?”

This attitude then calls into question the need for a unified force. But is the act of leading the same as leadership? Asks Dr Schubert. Is thinking about leadership the same as taking ownership, initiative or having influence?

In a competitive, crowded space, with multiple voices and messaging, people who can coordinate and unify a voice is really important, she says. And there is increasingly recognition that the sector has a leadership deficit that needs to be addressed: “Having people with the commitment and dedication to building leadership and ensuring leadership capacity exists is going to be a massive challenge.”

This is what the Master for Leadership for Development, a new online program from the University of Melbourne and the University of Manchester, does. Addressing the lack of attention to issues intersecting leadership and development, as well as the leadership shortage, the program rethinks leadership, providing the skills and dispositions needed to drive real change in the contemporary development world.

If you’re interested in finding out what this rethinking of leadership looks like, keep an eye out for our next article where we explore the skills, traits and qualities fundamental to the future leader in this ever-changing sector.


Explore the Master for Leadership for Development now, delivered in partnership with the University of Manchester.

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