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Although we have transitioned out of the immediate crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, wicked challenges remain on the horizon. This means that the work of leaders across civil society will become of even greater importance. So, what skills do civil society leaders need to effectively serve and represent their communities? 

Over the course of the pandemic, researchers at the Sydney Policy Lab engaged civil society leaders in a series of reflective conversations to understand how Australian civil society could be further strengthened. From their insights, we have identified leadership as a critical area to supporting strong and resilient communities.  

What does effective leadership look like? 

Civil society is stronger when people in leadership positions actively enable new leaders to emerge from the organisations and communities they are working to support.  

This requires reframing leadership as a practice that can be developed, rather than a position that is inherited or bestowed.  

As Jason Glanville, a Wiradjuri man from the Australian Indigenous Governance Institute reflected:  

“Leadership is a doing, not a position. An action and habit and we’ve lost that. I don’t know that there’s enough service in leadership to convince me that people in leadership positions care about the things most Australians care about.” 

The Sydney Policy Lab report, Nurturing Links Across Civil Society – Lessons from Australia’s for-purpose sector’s response to COVID-19, identified three key focus areas that can enhance and grow strong leadership skills: 

1. Collectively adapting in response to change 

Adaptive leadership has a crucial role to play especially in identifying shared alignment of objectives and scope for collective action across different silos and levels. Especially during times of crisis where circumstances shift on a day-to-day basis, leaders are responsible for: holding and projecting a collective story that resonates with and motivates people; and helping to define individual action within collaborative networks., including ensuring accountability and keeping things moving forward.  

2. Building relationships across difference 

Along with creating a shared sense of purpose, an effective leader must be able to work well with people of different backgrounds, views, and across different contexts. This practice is much easier said than done, because it often requires leaders and practitioners to step outside of their comfort zone. One way to overcome this is to create spaces early in the collaboration or relationship for people to understand one another’s experiences and perspectives. These small steps work to create an environment for easy wins to occur, which can build up trust, sustain momentum, and foster a shared sense of ownership. 

3. Fostering leadership in others 

To create self-sustaining change, leaders must support the development of leadership skills in others. This can mean investing in coaching and monthly leadership sessions within your organisation, stepping back so that others can practice their skills and rise to the occasion, and equipping people, including community members, with the tools and knowledge they need to advocate effectively.

To read more about what we learned in leadership and other areas of civil society capability, you can download the full report here, or just the leadership section here. 

The Sydney Policy Lab’s Strengthening Australian Civil Society project is a strategic partnership with the Paul Ramsay Foundation. It aims to build a stronger and reenergised Australian civil society, by creating opportunities for civil society leaders to reflect on their practice, and then sharing these insights and stories with others. 

Three ways you can engage with our work on leadership and other areas of civil society capability: 

  1. Invite us to come and chat to your team or group about how these ideas relate to what you’re trying to do. 
  2. Get in touch with us via email and let us know what you think. 
  3. Share this page or the report with people you think might be interested. 
Amy Tong

Amy Tong

Amy is a research assistant at the Sydney Policy Lab.