Update! Punk leadership - complete control?

Updated blog (see original here) from Graeme Reekie, Director, Wren & Greyhound, who has been delving into the (mosh) pit of Punk Leadership over the past four months. 

My last post was about a short exploration of punk leadership at the ACOSVO membership day in March. That was the debut single. In June we had the album - an evening's conversation about what it means to #LeadLikeaPunk! Here are the liner notes.


During the Wren and Greyhound 2017 leadership retreat, participants identified how it’s increasingly common and accepted for third sector leaders to sport tattoos, piercings, dyed hair, Dr Martens and so on. It occurred to me that maybe the punks are in charge now. Who let that happen?!


The generation who were teenagers in the mid-70s are now in their mid-50s and likely to be at a senior stage in their career. Have they sold out, leaving their youths behind? Or have the things that attracted them to punk also made them good leaders?


Punk has a pretty fluid identity, allowing people to bring their own meanings to it. During the dinner, we introduced ourselves using tapes with song titles and lyrics to say what leading like a punk means to us:



Rebellion; Activism, working for change; Power in numbers, collective action, empowerment; Developing answers, not waiting for them to come; Authenticity (but with the challenge of being fully ourselves at work); Challenging the norm, ‘shaking the tree’; Fighting spirit, standing up for what we believe; Interest in non-traditional management and organisational forms.



As with the initial workshop, not everyone identified as a punk. But they identified with these elements of punk culture as they perceive it.


The rest of the evening set about exploring these themes and whether there are links between punk, the third sector and leadership. What are they? Do they matter? What do they mean for our practice? So, what began as a fairly frivolous idea became a more valuable question:



What can the voluntary sector possibly have in common with a moribund (but still kicking) movement that represents being angry, disaffected, exploited, misunderstood, feared, left out - and skint?



Some of our conversations used the evening’s theme as a springboard for more general conversations about the state of the sector, but the links and parallels are there if we look for them - see below.


Identity and purpose

Punk identity gives a shorthand for knowing what someone’s about. Do we have this in the voluntary sector? Or have our traditional values been co-opted by managerialism and competition to deliver public service contracts?



A fundamental question for all of us: why are we charities? More organisations seem to have become arms-length delivery bodies, delivering public sector priorities and agendas. Ironically, this might partly be a consequence of having achieved influence in a relatively accessible and progressive government/policy environment.


 ·      Where do we go once we have one the policy victories?


·      How do we cure ‘implementation deficit disorder’ as one participant called it?


·      How do we get back to action?


·      Where is the vision is for the voluntary sector’s purpose?


[Note: Colin Rochester’s Rediscovering Voluntary Action explores some of these challenges. It advocates a return to voluntarism and the development/ acknowledgement of new organisational forms for those charities who rely on public service contracts. We noted additional challenges arising from public bodies setting up arms-length ‘charities’.]



We proposed that if it’s hard to bite the hand that feeds us, membership and representative organisations can or should be our route to more challenging, collective conversations. Policy and advocacy organisations might be more ‘punk’ than we think!


And we could all do with becoming a bit more ‘punk’. What is the world we want to live in? How do we want to express ourselves at work? How do we contribute to or change dominant discourses?


Confidence comes from knowing we’re not alone. Collaboration has become a procurement-led euphemism for competition. If we lead like punks we’ll think more about connection: coalitions, cooperatives and collectives.


 ...And here are the original notes of the ACOSVO members' day in March.

Punk Leadership is a convenient tag to describe a non-conformist mindset. Not many of our discussion participants were really into punk, but they all described feeling ‘different’ in childhood. At first this was alienating, as family pressures and societal mores constrained people’s identity and expression.


But in our discussions, everyone described the moment in life (usually in childhood) when they first came across a counter-cultural mindset. It might have been through punk or jazz, or through alternative role models - or anyone who showed us that things don’t have to be the way they are. Either way, there was a time in people’s lives when they no longer just felt different – they became proud to be different.



Finding other non-conformists legitimised their identity and ideas and led them towards the lives they live and the choices they make today. The biggest single realisation we had as a group was that we are the people we are, doing the jobs we do, because of these experiences.



There is a resourcefulness that comes from thinking differently. In our leadership roles, we can’t usually be outspoken, political - or maybe even be fully ourselves at work. (As one participant said, ‘I’d change the world…if only they let me!’). But we can work for what we think is right, push boundaries, take risks, make mistakes, challenge the status quo, and be prepared to disrupt our own and other people’s ways of thinking.



Radical leaders are few and far between. But as another participant put it, ‘We are the grassroots sector, we must remember grassroots culture and grassroots communications’.