We desperately need to embrace and develop the emotive side of leadership in our sector, but the first step is recognising that we need it.
Kate Still is Chief Operating Officer at WM Housing.
25 October 2018
The debate about leadership in housing is dominated by the lack of inclusivity. Inside Housing’s Inclusive Futures campaign and a number of other important pieces of work have highlighted significant issues of underrepresentation of women and minority groups.
But the question of why we don’t have more diversity in leadership roles in housing should lead us to ask an even more fundamental question – are we looking for the right skills in our leaders? I’m not sure that we are.
The reality is that in housing we have a tendency to equate leadership with managerial skills. As a consequence, executives often come from areas with a corporate skill set, development and finance being two key examples.
But when you think about the work that housing organisations do, is this really the skillset we should be focusing on?
I’m not suggesting that we don’t need people with experience in key housing areas, but a good leader needs much more than that. They need to be able to emotionally connect with their employees and customers, and drive their organisation forward. In housing, a sector which requires one of the most important relationships between organisation and customer imaginable, we need leadership styles that embody that empathetic connection.
Empathetic leadership focuses on building a mix of collaboration and innovative direction rather than hierarchy and managerial control. Its traits are often seen as stereotypically feminine. This kind of empathic skill set has been shown in the post-industrial era to be the defining aspect of transformative leadership.
As we’ve explored the lack of diversity in leadership in a series of free events we’ve hosted in recent months, it’s become clear that one of the big reasons we don’t see as many women executives in housing is because we have marginalised a skill set we should be embracing.
My point here is not that we should adopt a different skill set just to make sure we get more women into executive positions. It’s that the lack of diversity in those positions reveals that we have focused too much on one style of leadership and that we need to broaden our scope significantly.
This is the debate that we need to have. It’s not just a question of how we make our leadership more inclusive, it’s a question of how we make it fit for the future.
Empathetic models of leadership have to find a balance between sound management principles and transformative approaches that connect with staff and customers, leading to an innovative experience of the organisation and its brand.
It’s a flaw of our leadership in housing that we don’t encourage emotion, conflict and difference, when they can be the most productive forces to drive an organisation forward. If we don’t allow emotion to be part of our decision-making process in housing, which is one of the most emotional of products any organisation could provide, then that is a major flaw.
Having spent 15 years working in the international social enterprise sector, my experience in housing is that leaders who find the balance between business acumen and emotional connection are very rare.
Let’s not just make our leadership more diverse and inclusive, let’s make it better as well.