Six months into the year, you surely had your share of physical meetings and conferences yet. How did they feel? A combination of personal warmth, anxiety, confusion, and an irrational sense of ‘newness’? At least that’s how it felt when 17 of the Centre’s member CEOs met in person for their annual ‘Vision Works’ retreat in Switzerland, last month.
There’s much to say about the re-discovery of informal conversations and building personal networks in such conferences. Besides the benefits of peer-to-peer exchanges for one’s mental health, one also wonders how today’s leadership challenges in a complex world have suffered from the two years of minimised personal meeting opportunities.
The complexities of our environment have been described in more recent debates as characterised by Turbulence, Uncertainty, Novelty and Ambiguity (TUNA). And the difference to previous futures narratives being the acknowledgement that ‘we don’t know anymore, what we don’t know’.
Leading in a ‘tuna world’ requires specific approaches and talents. The steering ‘on sight’, the prioritisation of values over outputs, the ability to use scenarios, increase diversity, the flexibility to embrace emergent change with a long-term view, change direction and unlearn if needed. And it also asks for personal credibility, empathy, approachability, and open discourse – all more difficult to maintain in virtual communication.
So now that we have moved into a ‘new normal’ mode, trying to combine the best of virtual and personal, and being faced with a world that has changed again (and keeps changing), how do we talk to each other? And how do civil society leaders steer their organisations, support their staff, and provide confidence and direction, particularly as there is a continued struggle with overload, the pace of change, change fatigue, and exhaustion and tiredness of the workforce (not least because of the COVID impacts).
And how do you lead a new generation of colleagues, and ensure new leadership takes up responsibilities? How do you intensify cross-cutting ethical ambitions, and focus on values, mandates and purpose when operational demands still dominate the work?
Compare these challenges with the latest results of the Interaction survey of member CEOs, confirming the high pace and significant depth of changes in the environment, the business models, operating models and programme priorities. Many organisations shifting power to the global South, yet how do you ensure alignment by letting go of overly centralised management?
Looking at the high relevance of megatrends like climate change, power shift and digitalisation (including the navigation of cybersecurity), we find that civil society organisations involved in development cooperation and humanitarian aid, even if they are urgently needed in the global discourse around those trends, are often still in reaction/crisis mode, partly constrained by restrictive donor policies, operational challenges, homegrown problems and colonial legacy.
CSO leaders grapple with complexities and interconnectedness, and the scale of the crises is challenging established management and governance practices.
When we met in Switzerland, some promising ideas were developed around authenticity in the non-profit world, increased ambition around our mandates, new forms of political communication, more focus on values and the tackling of double standards that are being seen around us – whether it is the special treatment of the crisis in and around Ukraine, or the need to accelerate decolonisation in the sector.
The growing responsibilities (and opportunities) for civil society organisations became more evident in this space. We need more innovative and bold actions to take shape. It is no longer enough to set up intentions or keep our spirit. We must collaborate and implement these ideas to rise to the “tuna” challenge.