What makes a future leader in development?

The development sector needs more leaders and a rethinking of what leadership is. But what does that look like? With insights from says Senior Lecturer in Development Studies, Dr Violeta Schubert, we find out.

Young girl educating rural children

“The moment has been compelled on us to rethink what leadership is about and the role leaders play in contributing to sustainable and meaningful social transformation,” says Senior Lecturer in Development Studies, Dr Violeta Schubert. “We need to reflect on what leading actually involves in this context, what we mean by leadership, how we construct leadership, and where it's directed.”

As we explored in our previous piece, the time to rethink leadership has been spurred by both a deficit in the sector, an incredibly complex and changing global landscape, and the intensification of that by COVID-19.

The rise of virtual leadership triggered by the pandemic, for example, not only requires new skills to work with tools enabling remote leadership, but forces consideration of how it happens in an online context. Can you influence virtually? What about the digital divide?

As Dr Schubert says, “We need to stand back from ideas that make it seem like leadership is A, B, C, do this and that, and you're a leader.”

But if leadership is not some technicality or set of logics you can simply follow, and every aspect needs rethinking, where do we start? What does a future leader in development look like? Luckily, there are some key skills and traits from which this new leader can grow.

Genuine openness

One of the fundamental things is openness. First, it’s key to addressing the leadership deficit. Says Dr Schubert: “We need leaders who are open to thinking they should be building leaders, rather than ‘acting’ like leaders. Who celebrate and foster leadership of others rather than staking claim to it.”

Likewise, being open is necessary to ensuring the sector is guided by the core values of diversity, inclusion, and equity. While the idea of the ‘heroic’ leader (which reinforces leadership that looks more Western European and male) has been fundamentally questioned, that doesn't mean it’s been fully addressed, says Dr Schubert.

“We still have so many issues around diversity, gender, education where the sector advantages some whilst discriminating against others from making it as leaders. There are marvellous people who are leaders in their communities, who are passionate and innovative. But that doesn't automatically translate to being able to get past the barriers and prejudices, get in positions that enable them to share and articulate their ideas and passions, expand their influence, connect with others on a broader or even global level.”

“To genuinely incorporate diversity, we need to understand leadership from different cultural perspectives and ask ourselves what we can learn from different models of leadership.”

Openness – rather than sticking to pre-planned ideas of where things need to go – also allows responses that are specific enough to achieve meaningful social transformation. In a world marked by complexity and change – from shifts in power to the impacts of climate change or conflict – leaders need to go beyond thinking critically and analytically to actually seeking out different ways of seeing and doing, says Dr Schubert.

“To genuinely seek to be informed by different ideas, innovations and perspectives, to diversity, to being sensitive and incorporating multiple pathways. This is how you manage the complex array of directions and pathways without reducing them.”

Managing and navigating complexity

This broad and complex sector, intersecting government (official aid and development agencies), non-government (community organisations, NGOS and INGOs), and the private sector, means managing and navigating complexity is undoubtedly essential too.

For example, a very challenging funding landscape – where many donors who usually invest have enormous problems to deal with in their own societies – means “being able to balance a values-driven approach with the realities of ensuring the sustainability of programs through expanding funding and support, building relationships and networking across sectors.”

Big picture challenges also arise here, falling to leaders to navigate. “If you have a proliferation of NGOs all wanting some of the kitty, for example, it just spreads thin. And the more it spreads thin, you have to ask, what good are we doing?”

Knowing yourself to relate to others

Another fundamental skill is self-awareness. Navigating and articulating disparate voices and coming up with a shared understanding about what needs to happen and where to go from there, reminds us leadership is “fundamentally about relationships.”

“And if leadership is fundamentally relational,” says Dr Schubert. “then it's about the dynamics, interactions, knowledge, and the frame you bring into the relationship.”

“You can have top-down leadership coming from a senior person, but that doesn't mean it's going to necessarily gain currency from others. It's the sense of relationality we have with others and with humanity more broadly that matters.” Which means “understanding ourselves as human beings, our place in the world and our motives.”

Reflective and reflexive leaders

“Ultimately, I think what is called for are more reflexive leaders who are mindful, have critical self-aware skills, and an understanding of how they impact and are impacted by others to ensure they don't repeat past mistakes and are engaged in on-going learning.”

One of the longstanding issues in development is to what extent the past is learned from, says Dr Schubert. "Various pressures means we just keep going without stopping to think about what we've done, reflect on how we might have impacted things. But then we’re accused of the same issues over and over again.” Being seriously reflective is also so important right now because it’s just that much more complex.

Rather than seeing this as taking away vital time from ‘doing’, suggests Dr Schubert, it should be framed by what it offers. “‘Doing’ can be fundamentally improved through giving, standing back, and being more thoughtful about how we do things and engage.”

Importantly, this is not the same as monitoring and evaluation. “We need to take the time to stand back even from tasks such as report writing to say, ‘okay, let's do a survey of the landscape of my doing and thinking. Does it need to be unsettled a bit to consider the impact and the approach?’”

E-leadership also requires this kind of thinking. Aside from learning new tools and technologies, considering the impacts of remote leadership is key. Communication tools such as Zoom enable various interactions previously done face to face, but is the interaction the same? Can it be influential? If tools are flat sounding, or don’t allow for nuance, how are ideas framed and articulated? How do you tap into people's motivations? Set expectations, excitement?

"The future of e-leadership is not just about using tools to merely replicate a standard form of leadership. But about reassessing how we do things with new technology. The online space offers incredible possibilities but it is very different.”

How remote leadership is done is what matters. And that requires serious thinking to ensure it's also addressing those bigger questions around engagement and impact, including things like access to technology and what that means for people who don’t.

“Again, it’s about taking the time to reflect on and think about leadership given the changing context.”

Unsettling leadership in the Masters

In the new Master for Leadership for Development, reflexivity is a fundamental aspect that cuts across the course. Because while the sector needs a rethinking of leadership, there is no blueprint. Ultimately the contemporary development leader needs to keep “unsettling notions of leadership and democratise the space around influence and impact.”

Explains Dr Schubert: "We want to enable people to reflect, be reflexive, to critically think about and actually engage with ideas around leadership just as much as open up avenues for practice for leading and doing things in a different way.”


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

The Master of Leadership for Development. Delivered in partnership with the University of Manchester. Learn more.

Find out more and apply now