Leadership for Systems Change in Civil Society
Janet Mawiyoo is an executive coach and an advisor to RINGO, coaching 2 of our prototyping teams. For 17 years, she was the Executive Director for the Kenya Community Development Foundation, the leading local foundation in East and Central Africa. She shares her insights on leadership and what it means for systems change in RINGO and the civil society space.
Having come from a very humble background, raised and schooled in rural Kenya, I knew from a young age that I wanted to dedicate my working life to public service in some way. After graduating from university, I spent a few years working in a Government Ministry that deals with social services. However, it was not long before I realized that my interest was not in the day-to-day handling of social challenges commonly seen with the poor segments of the Kenyan communities, but rather I was very concerned about how to scale up effective interventions in efforts to overcome poverty. Full of impatience due to what I saw as slow processes in government ministries, I joined the nonprofit sector. This was over 30 years ago.
I started as a simple Program Officer in an operational International NGO, and went on to become head of a new country program in a neighboring country. Here, I witnessed first-hand for myself the way in which many international actors work on the ground; often disempowering communities, and making them less aware of the great wealth of indigenous knowledge that communities hold in solving the challenges they face. I soon became a strong advocate of development work that was driven from the ground up, respected the priorities of the people, was consultative, and trusted locals to take more responsibility in solving their own problems.
It was with this understanding in mind, that I found a ‘home’ working at the Kenya Community Development Foundation for 17 years. Thus, in the last thirty years or so, I can confidently say over and over again, I found it very energizing to remember what I have come to consider as some of my critical leadership truths. These are also important in the RINGO Lab as we work to bring about systems change in the global civil society sector. In no particular order, these are:
- Authenticity as a leader is critical as it allowed me to not just do a job, but engage in work that I believed was making a difference in the lives of the communities I was trying to support. The internal alignment within myself was energizing for me, and also motivated me not to spare any energy in growing a like-minded team around myself, to push our collective mission.
- People work better when they understand the rationale behind the things they are doing, than when they do it out of compulsion to meet some requirements, (e.g., helping ordinary communities make the connection between conservation and food production). In this way they own not just the process but become part of defining the pathway to their goals. The coaching process for RINGO is very much about helping our prototyping teams to understand the why as well as the what: and what actions they can take personally to shift the system.
- Finding your allies and collaborators is critical to success. I came to very much appreciate the power of having a like-minded team throughout my leadership journey. In RINGO, this means the Lab members are your sounding board and your kindred spirits. This blog from RINGO member Nicola Banks echoes this sentiment. You can’t do this alone!
- Continuous learning and reflection must be constant. I was shocked at a conversation that took center stage at KCDF amongst staff across the different levels, after a huge television was donated to the organization. Some staff felt that the TV set was not aligned to the values and culture we had been promoting over the years. Some felt it was setting a bad example for the poor communities who often came to the office. There was a lot of emotion on what seemed like a simple issue. But the freedom to engage on a simple matter and be ready to be honest about their feelings on how a big TV in the boardroom was ‘disrupting our peace’ was very satisfying! This is something I would urge any leader to commit to grow. If your organizations and teams are free to debate, they will be better equipped to disrupt the current system. In RINGO, we are also constantly reviewing and reflecting on our approach and challenging ourselves in this process too. We don’t have all the answers.
- Always remember to keep asking: ‘Why are we here?’ A major role for leaders is to thoughtfully discern what is good for the organization and the mission we had set for ourselves. To change the system, this could mean making difficult choices, like turning down large grants that are too cumbersome, for example, or something else entirely. I learnt an alignment with actors, networks and funders who shared my vision and mission was critical.
- A leader is one who is able to thoughtfully and respectfully harness the energy, ideas, wisdom and insights from within the team. Leadership for systems change requires different qualities than traditional understandings of neo-colonial leadership: it requires humility and sometimes it means stepping back to let others come forward. I remember once while working in a neighboring country feeling quite lost, while being aware that many locals did not like Kenyans for posing as “wajuaje”, which literally means ‘those who know’, and have a lot of ‘Kimbele mbele’ (always front themselves!). On the contrary, the locals in that country generally appeared more ‘humble’ and could easily be mistaken for not knowing stuff. I had no choice but to learn to ask for help and ask questions. More often than not, there was someone with some insights on the situation in question, who was yearning to share their constructive thoughts. They were happy too, to be acknowledged and felt more part of the team, since their views and perspectives were valued.
In my few months with the RINGO Project, I can see that it is a challenging space for leaders, both in the north and south alike, because it often makes us reconsider our usual ways of working. But if we embrace the process and are open to adapting, we are more likely to harness the energy from below for the system we want to see emerging: one that is locally-led, more solidaristic, and as a consequence, far more likely to tackle the multitude of societal challenges we are all here to address.