What next for housing association leadership?

September 23, 2021

Since the 22ndof June 2016, I think it’s fair to say we have been on a bumpy journey as a country. First Brexit, then Grenfell and now the impact of a global pandemic, predicted for decades but not prepared for, must make us all think about the quality of our personal and national leadership.

Each of these game changing incidents had one thing in common – the vast divide between those in power and those experiencing the consequences of their decisions. Over the last 4 years, I’ve thought a lot about leadership – how people get there and stay there, and the implications of the disconnect between the skills that are perceived in the post-industrial world to be good leadership and those that aren’t.

We area bout to go into an epoc-definining moment. The coronavirus emergency response will be nothing compared to what we will need to do to regain the ground lost inthe last year. Are we as leaders up to the job, and do we display the empathic traits that will be necessary to understand those that have suffered and risked the most on our behalf in this time?

Like the post war period, an understanding of the experiences of ordinary people will bevital to the reputations of every company in this country. Those who had nopower, now do, all be it largely cashed in via the currency of popular opinion.

Like many people, I’ve taken stock of my own journey over the last few months. September2019 marked 25 years since I got into the London School of Economics. Acomprehensive school kid, living in a single parent family on a council estate in Hemel Hempstead. My main motivation for applying had been that I’d seen a documentary where someone threw an egg at Ken Clarke during a lecture there.”I’ll have some of that”, I thought. My experiences growing up in a town blighted by a hefty dose of prejudice against me simply because of my post code,had left me pretty angry.

At the timeI’d wanted to be a lawyer, but I’d ended up at a “notorious” school on the estate because the better schools across town required a daily 75p bus fayre. I hadn’t wanted to put my Mum under the pressure to find that money, so I pretended I wanted to go there.  My school only offered 6 subjects at A ‘level, because there were only 15 of us out of 200 that stayed on after our GCSEs. That didn’t include politics or economics, my two favorite subjects, so I did geography instead. “Close enough”,I thought.  My options for seeing the law profession up close were limited, with my work experience options restricted to providing free labor for the local Spar.  I’d complained that my school had offered limited opportunity to us and had been slapped down for asking to be considered for a profession like that.

Belatedly, and largely down to the championing of a single teacher, they managed to get me two weeks work experience for a local solicitor. My time there turned out to be fairly dull, turning me off the law profession pretty fast. Not least because one of the partners had chosen at the end of my time, to give me £20 and tell me he had been “amazed” that “someone like me, had a brain”. So, fueled by youthful optimism and a hefty dose of rage I got into LSE with the hope I’d be surrounded by young Che Guevara’s. It didn’t turn out quite like that, but for the first time in my life someone told me I was bright, and not just bright compared to other “people like me”, but properly bright, you know, like normal people.

LSE taught me lots of things, but the greatest thing it did was put me in touch with people who thought differently, and had different perspectives on life, who challenged my view of the world.  This global perspective, showed me how uniquely privileged I was, being able to access a free education in one of the best universities in the world, despite my background. The level of diversity of perspective that you encounter there, is I believe one of the reasons it’s created so many world leaders. You are forced to try to see a wide range of perspectives that are totally outside of your experience. The way people think and challenge there has continued to be my benchmark for good leadership.

LSE and its founders were instrumental in social reform in the 19th and early 20th Century. It had a key role in the thinking that created the welfare state in the post war period, with social housing being one of its main pillars. Like now, those policies arose as a result in the shift in power, with elites having to listen to the needs and experiences of the people that had dug them out of a hole. We are in a similar era now.

What do the lessons of that era teach us about now. Firstly, it’s that we need to take an unfiltered look at who we have become and for those in power, that means admitting our failures. When I joined housing 13 years ago, I hoped that I’d be joining a sector still at the forefront of radical social reform in the same vein as the LSE founders. In that time, I’ve met some incredibly driven individuals trying their best to force forward aspects of change. But to me,all too often, these people are on the sidelines and more than often patronized and excluded from real positions of power.

The predominant culture today is politely corporate. A combination of closeness to government and a regulation regime which requires a heavy presence of large accounting firms and investment banks has seeped into the culture of what gets valued. Compliance, not rocking the boat, being seen as “stable” and not drawn to outbursts of emotion – i.e., middle class.  Everyone is genuinely nice and well meaning, but real systemic change that can address the in-built prejudice that communities like mine experience requires a lot more edge, and a willingness to upset the status quo to do something about it.

This commercial politeness will not stand up in the post covid world. We are going to go into a phase of significant social upheaval. More people will have experienced unemployment and homelessness than ever before and will give a much more prominent voice to our systemic idiosyncrasies. Sadly, the inequality of the last few decades has been able to thrive because of a lack of perceived legitimate voice of those that are impacted by it. This is itself an indictment on us as leaders in this sector.

But that is changing, as a society we are now experiencing hyperarousal to injustice and unfairness – there will be much more empathy for those that find themselves needing housing support which means we are going to need leaders right across the housing system that can really drive change, and quickly. Sitting back and claiming that we are powerless to help the most vulnerable because of the wider “system”will no longer be possible. If you are not proactively trying to be part of the solution – you will be seen as part of the problem. That applies at both a personal and organizational level.

One of the incredible things of the last year is the agility and innovation that can happen in times of crisis. Vaccine development accelerated to tenth of the normal time needed, the formula one industry designing ventilator solutions in a matter of days. Such opportunity now exists for us to do something similar to create better standards, access, and equality in the housing system. If we needed a burning platform – this, is it.

So, as wego into this period of returning to business what should we be doing as leaders?

1)Listen to the dissenting voices in our business as people’s emotions are high – that may mean we are going to have to deal with difficult expressions of people’s views – anger is legitimate and important emotion as it is an indicator of how far someone’s experience has moved from your perception, particularly when social injustice is at its root –to be honest, if you aren’t angry about what has happened in the last ten years, you shouldn’t be working in social housing.

2)Employ people that focus on the people elements of the business – there will be a pull to return to finance led businesses, as we struggle to adapt to the new fiscal environment – This is what happened in the rent cut era – we bought into the knee jerk narrative of scarcity, resulting in a massive cognitive dissonance in our approach to the delivery of “social housing”.  Your employees and customers will not buy it. For them, to have taken risk and experienced the impact of lockdown disproportionately will mean a finance driven narrative will drive significant conflict in your business. This recovery will beas much, if not more about your role as a social enterprise in the truest sense, than anything else. Every commercial business in the country will now need to ensure its people focused values are real, particularly if you are claiming to be providing a public good, like housing. If this sentiment can cause a PR disaster for Brew Dog, imagine what it can do for organisations and leaders that are supposed to be focused on addressing social inequality.

I’ve been on a mission to find people who also lived or live-in social housing that led the sector – there are lots of us, but talking to them, it’s evident how unclear people are about whether they should break cover and talk about it.Many people have talked to me about how they don’t mention how their experiences impact their leadership as this could be somehow seen negatively.

Today we are at a turning point; the gap between economically included and excluded is the biggest ever. Brexit, our national existential nervous breakdown, is a result of generations of inequality compounding in on itself until only those that provide an option to catastrophically break the system can be seen to have any solutions.

We might despise that brand of leadership, but at least it claimed to do something fundamentally different. This is what people want now, leaders that stand up to be counted, that don’t ignore the inertia, that are willing to call out self-interesting the “professions” that support this sector and challenge the merry go round ofideas that get re-hashed every few years. Our question in Housing is, where are those leaders for us? are we creating cultures that let people do and say things that have been unsayable, that push our corporate buttons, or are we all a little bit too comfortable?