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Anticipate, listen patiently, and build a peer network – three lessons from Leading Together

10th July 2023 by Miriam Niehaus

For the first time in four years, the Centre convened its Leading Together conference in person again. Leading Together is our annual space for the global directors of the ICSO divisions of Human Resources, Policy/Advocacy, and Programmes. These groups have parallel peer group discussions as well as joint sessions over topics that concern them all. This year, the Scanning the Horizon community of futures-focused senior sector professionals also joined the group. We were thrilled to welcome participants on our home turf in Berlin and spend 48h learning, debating, and reflecting. The Centre team is busily following up on those 47+ items/ideas/insights generated during the event, and we would also like to share three insights that were key to us:

1. Exercising that anticipatory muscle is challenging, liberating – and necessary 

At Global Perspectives 2022, we heard and stressed how anticipatory capacity in (I)CSOs is a collective muscle we need to exercise constantly. We took this advice and focused peer and joint sessions on this topic: Discussions with Russell Reynolds on the role of leadership and using AI for the good of ICSOs as well as shaping the future through participatory strategy making were sessions where participants engaged with trends and how to “organise futures”. The Policy/Advocacy Directors discussed with David Griffiths, Associate Fellow at Chatham House the future of the Human Rights diplomacy 

We also really challenged participants with some freshly generated scenarios created in a collective exercise (ParEvo) the Centre has just concluded. Participants had to discuss and reflect on how civil society (organisations) might deal with and shape civil society space after a series of mega-tsunamis hit the world and severed all IT infrastructure.  While some scenarios stretched the goodwill of participants to further consider, the exercise was highlighted by many as important to encourage imagining futures differently. A series of mega-tsunamis will throw the world into disarray (not unlike a global pandemic) and might need primarily our crisis-response capacity. However, spending time on creating long-term visions for different futures can put us as civil society sector professionals in a different kind of driving seat versus racing to manage with futures narratives others – usually more powerful actors – are creating. 


2. Taking time for nuance and learning advances us collectively 

What was particularly enriching at this year’s conference was the participants’ willingness to engage in the substance of discussions and openness to critical challenges, and generally a learning mentality. We tried not to gloss over differences with buzzword definitions like “power shift” or “decolonising” but acknowledged the complexity of the matters we deal with and that we may get some things right and others wrong along the journey. Similarly, a joint discussion between the Programme and the Policy/Advocacy directors in exchange with AWID over anti-rights groups and the threat they pose to civic space was exemplary for constructive engagement: Participants brought so much nuance to the discussion and – it might sound like a cliché – embraced the diversity of viewpoints and created patience for understanding our individual or organisational contexts.  These high-quality discussions were incredibly enriching and displayed a high degree of collective responsibility for advancing as a sector.  


3. Our organisations are shifting fundamentally – from strategy making to recruitment processes – and peer support may just help keep the head above water 

A few years back someone said “’powershift’ is the water we all swim in”. This was certainly true for Leading Together. In so many sessions participants explored topics that come from our journeys to become organisations that are at least more power-aware or even mirror a decolonised, equitable and just society that we want to see. It was hugely encouraging to see the spread of organisational initiatives and the degree to which ambitions for change are permeating the organisations: to learn from the experience of WaterAid’s participatory strategy making journey, engage with Superrr Lab in what it takes to break western-centred views of futures making. In similar vein, Mission Talent and the cohort of Human Resources directors discussed the challenges and possibilities our changing sector holds to build more diverse organisations; the Programme Directors explored with Comic Relief what ways there are to work differently with bilateral donors to enable more equitable partnerships; and the Policy/Advocacy Directors are already experienced how shifting mandates of ICSOs hold increased expectations for their departments. Senior leaders from the ICSOs are demonstrating resolve and yet acknowledge that these are unchartered waters where peer exchange, inspiration and support is just what you need. 

If you are also an ICSO senior leader and you want to learn more about our offer, do reach out. We already look forward to the next round of Leading Together in 2024 – online – and in-person in 2025!  


Miriam Niehaus

Head of Programmes

International Civil Society Centre

Miriam leads the Centre’s programmes. She started at the Centre as Executive Assistant in 2014 and then, as Project Manager, developed and implemented the Centre’s projects on civic space between 2016 and 2019. Prior to joining the Centre Miriam worked for VSO International and GIZ in the Palestinian Territories. She holds a BA in Islamic Studies and Social Anthropology from the University of Freiburg and an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Leading in TUNA times

27th June 2022 by Wolfgang Jamann

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.

Wolfgang Jamann

Executive Director

International Civil Society Centre

Dr. Wolfgang Jamann is Executive Director of the International Civil Society Centre. Until January 2018 he was Secretary General and CEO of CARE International (Geneva). Before that he led NGO Deutsche Welthungerhilfe and the Alliance 2015, a partnership of 7 European aid organisations. From 2004-2009 he was CEO & Board member of CARE Deutschland-Luxemburg and President of the CARE Foundation. Previously, he worked for World Vision International as a regional representative in East Africa (Kenya) & Head of Humanitarian Assistance at WV Germany. After his Ph.D. dissertation in 1990 he started his career in development work at the German Foundation for International Development, later for the UNDP in Zambia. As a researcher and academic, he has published books and articles on East & Southeast Asia contributing to international studies on complex humanitarian emergencies and conflict management.

Podcast: Leading Strategy as a Journey of Not Knowing

17th May 2022 by Elizabeth Parsons

In this episode, we speak with Philip Goodwin, Chief Executive Officer of Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), the leading global international development organisation working through volunteers to empower communities in some of the world’s poorest and most overlooked regions.

Philip talks with Vicky Tongue, the Centre’s Head of Futures and Innovation, sharing insights and organisational experiences of uncertainty, strategy, leadership and narrative. We learn how VSO operates in framing strategy and action, using the principles of dispersed leadership, connecting logic, emotion and action as a way of aligning people, and above all being reflective in practice – constantly assessing what VSO is doing and how that might require the organisation to change. In this way, they have achieved a space where interactions, particularly across the wider global leadership group, maintain momentum and generate opportunity in meeting the organisation’s mission.

picking up on themes from two publications:

This conversation shared some exciting food for thought on leadership, which the Centre will be picking up on in our sector leadership convenings in 2022. We think it will inspire you as much as it has us, so please listen and enjoy!

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Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre