Six Leadership Characteristics of Social Entrepreneurs – a Business School Seminar

As a graduate of the University of Leeds, and having achieved a Masters from the Leeds University Business School, Trust Leeds’ Chief Executive was invited to join the Business School’s Leaders in Residence Programme, which matches the theory that is taught with real world practice.  Liza explains her leadership path, inspirations and lessons learned.

 Dr James Roberts, Lecturer in Strategy and Innovation, invited me to speak to his MBA students about leadership in social enterprise at a seminar on 14th March 2018. 

 “The more war stories the better.  Disagreeing with any of the academic material is also to be encouraged,” was part of James’s brief. 

 One of the best pieces of wisdom I ever received came from my father, who’d advised his five children to, “Celebrate successes AND failures – preferably both with champagne.” 

In trying to describe my personal leadership style I managed to pin down the following key characteristics:

  • Striving and driving (low self-esteem with high courage).
  • Motivated by gaps (needs/social injustice) and opportunities.
  • Flexible and creative (can fill the gaps if I have to).

As Levy said, “In each individual we need the mind of a manager and the soul of a leader.” (2004)

  • Just gets on with it, and always find a way, or Plan B…
  • Determined and ambitious, tempered with a collaborative nature (a twin who is a people pleaser?) and a wish to help people to develop and recognise their own strengths and realise their own ambitions.

My inspiration 

As someone who has worked in, led, started, and been a trustee of a number of social enterprise, I reflected on leadership qualities which I’ve encountered and experienced in different business contexts. 

These included my work as Head of Development at West Yorkshire Playhouse, where I’d been inspired by the then Artistic Director and Chief Executive, Jude Kelly (currently Artistic Director of Southbank Centre). 

Jude was determined and worked very hard to get what she wanted. She managed, co-produced and inspired.  Occasionally she was criticised and sometimes people didn’t like her, but they always respected her.  She listened to people right across – and outside – the organisation, and championed them. I don’t think she realises how formative her leadership was for me and countless others.

Taking the helm

My leadership role at Emmaus Leeds spearheaded the creation of an Emmaus community for homeless people in the city.  This happened thanks to: the charity’s strong values and local/global perspectives; adapting and changing style as the organisation morphed from an idea via a capital campaign, to a fledging home and business; and huge commitment from stakeholders and trustees.  

Whilst running the Community Foundation in Wales, my leadership in the field of philanthropy was recognised by Cardiff Metropolitan University with an Honorary Doctorate in Business Administration.  I so appreciated the Foundation’s work being recognised in this way, plus it was a lovely end to my ten-year reign at the Community Foundation in Wales!

No rest for the wicked

Since moving back to Leeds, I’ve focussed my energy on setting up new charity and social enterprise Trust Leeds.  This, and my volunteering (now as a Trustee of Emmaus Leeds and in another arts role as Trustee of Opera North), mean I’m still learning, sharing and experiencing excellent leadership in a variety of settings.

To conclude the seminar I identified six key characteristics shared by successful leaders in the world of social enterprise:

  1. Have the humility to know what they don’t know, and the guts and connections to fill the gaps and/or recruit accordingly. (It’s much easier in smaller, entrepreneurial organisations to recruit flexibly and creatively).
  2. Feel the fear and do it anyway – trust your gut instincts about people, organisations, and ideas, and find a way to make things happen despite the barriers.
  3. Make just as many @@@@-ups as any other leaders – but always reflect, share, and grow.
  4. Understand their range of stakeholders, and spend time and energy building social capital (not that they would call it that!).
  5. Gather their allies, their lieutenants, teams and varied people to make teams around them.
  6. Just do it. As voices as varied as Muhammad Yunis and Nike have said, the key to innovation is to actually start. ‘Ready, Fire, Aim’ is okay… as long as you listen, learn, reflect and trust yourself and the people around you.

It was fascinating to meet the international students on the Leeds University Business School MBA programme, and to get their positive feedback.  It was also salutary to reflect on leadership in the world of social enterprise…. And particularly useful now that I’ve got to really put this into action as we establish Trust Leeds!