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David Robinson: Unconditional Leadership

--Zilong Wang, on Apr 6, 2014

In college, David Robinson wrote a thesis paper -- and then went on to actually implement it. That organization he started as a young graduate, Community Links, is still thriving many decades later as a grassroots effort to build stronger, healthier and more vibrant community. It has received many awards, and now reaches 16 thousand people every year. He also chairs We Are What We Do whose "Change the World for a Fiver" book has sold more than a million copies and has himself authored Unconditional Leadership for promoting value-based leadership. In addition, he leads the Early Action Task Force, and is a leading figure in social finance, an architect of the Social Impact Bond, and a trustee of the Big Society Bank.  While his work involves interactions with high profile figures, like UK's Prime Minister, it doesn't exclude more humble forms of service. David regularly turns his hand to making tea and offering biscuits to guests who come to visit him at Community Links. And he is known for tidying up after himself so that the meeting tables are ready for use again. Visit David at work and you won't find him sitting alone in a majestic office behind closed doors -- instead, you'll find him at a small ordinary office desk sitting alongside colleagues, working away like everyone else who is based at the headquarters. And he would probably never inform you that he has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. That's right -- he's Sir David Robinson.

This Awakin Call guest moved listeners deeply with his unwavering spirit of service, endearing humility, expansive humanity, passion for “making big dreams,” and pragmatism and tirelessness in inspiring actions, building the community from the ground up.  The transcript below, attempts to capture the many nuggets of wisdom weaved together by a spirit connecting people across the Atlantic for 90 minutes on the phone.


Trishna: I had the good fortune to work with David at Community Links, who deeply influenced me in many of the same ways Nipun has influenced the ServiceSpace community. What touched me most from our first meeting was how humble David was. If you were walking around the office, you would have no idea which person is David, or which is his desk.  David lives the value of the organization. When I received David’s book, “Unconditional Leadership,” I read it in one go and felt so fortunate to have found a “local ServiceSpace.” An organization can only serve unconditionally when it is led by unconditional people. David founded Community Links, and continues to serve it consistently in numerous ways. Thank you so much for joining us.

Nipun: David, let’s dive right into your journey. The story goes that it all started with a college paper you wrote. You actually implemented the idea, and created the organization that is still touching tens of thousands of lives today. How did it all start?

David: I live and work in East London, among the most deprived parts of the country. When I was growing up, there was little community facilities, especially for children. During my college years, some of us raised money and bought an old double-decker bus, retrofitted it, and ran children and youth activities off that bus, which was wonderfully popular.  We learned that with very basic resources, we can do interesting things in the community, and generate a lot of capable volunteers. Many users of our services have become workers and volunteers. Now our work is national through training, support, and consultancy.

Nipun: When I had the pleasure of meeting you, I was most moved by the way you held space. What does unconditional leadership mean to you?

David: A lot is about enabling others. It’s about heart and values. It becomes second nature. It’s just our ways of doing things. It’s also about finding the “biting point” between vision and action. You don’t just sit there and daydream; you “make big dreams.” At Community Links, we are "driven by dreams, but judged on delivery."

Nipun: What was your process of learning these lessons early on?

David: I observed people I admired. For example, teachers who inspired us were those who worked with us, and made us feel that the learning process is a process we embark on together. Leaders are not in front of the pack dragging people along, but in the middle orchestrating a collaborative effort. Very practically, the leadership from the middle is just a lot more effective, particularly when you work with volunteers who don’t have to show up tomorrow.

Trishna: Even today, Community Links is still a completely flat organization. Hierarchy is not felt by anybody. What’s the glue that hold together the organization through all the changes over the years?

David: The values of the organization is communicated and passed on through people’s behaviors, “our ways of doing things.” The power of storytelling – of constantly telling one another of these stories – also reinforces the secret reservoir of values. These days, every organizations has a set of values on their website, but “you must be the change you want to see.”

Nipun: Your book, Unconditional Leadership, opens with a beautiful example of a bookcase -- a standardized one you had and a custom crafted one that your friend made. The standardized one had a gap between it and the wall, and it could only fit certain sizes of books. But your friend had made it all fit. What is the leadership architecture for embracing diversity?

David: People doing things differently could be just as good, or, more often than not, could take us to a totally different level. It gives you different options and new capacities. For example, the communications director wrote our annual report very differently from how I tend to do it. I was worried at first, but it turned out that our partners loved it. It does require a degree of maturity and courage from the leader to work with people who are not like them.  Working in an economically deprived area where 120 languages are represented, there is also a complex and careful distinction between the diversity that enriches our community, and the inequality that diminishes it. We need to have the same foundation of opportunities – in health care, education, housing, etc – to allow a healthy diversity to flourish upon it.

Nipun: Your ways of interacting with the world shows a deep sense of humility. Would you share your reflections on non-ego-centric leadership?

David: There might be two categories of people I admire. There is the type like Nelson Mandela, whose picture hangs on my wall. The other type is like my son’s football coach, who works very hard for his family, and still volunteers to be a thoughtful and first-class coach to the kids’ football team. Another couple we know have been foster parents to over 150 different children over the years. They are never rich or famous, but have lived worthwhile lives.  Another couple have knowingly adopted two children who have serious learning disability, and have dedicated the next 20 years of their life caring for these children, without any expectation of return. The steady and determined commitment to principle is extraordinary.

I certainly won’t put people on a pedestal simply because of their prominent positions. I don’t even want to call those people every-day “heroes.” It doesn’t enable others to identify with them as people whose life we might seek to emulate. Better to call it “out of the ordinary.”

Nipun: We often sacrifice values to reach outcome or scale. How do you navigate those crossroads?

David: We overrate scale – there is actually “diseconomy of scale.” Part of the strength in what we do is the sense of local ownership. At the same time, through consultancy, training, publication, and influencing public policy, we spread the genuine innovation from Community Links to the wider world. There are ways of reconciling small, localized focus with a big vision. The bigger impact also involves letting go, and freely giving away the good ideas that worked for you. Another dimension is “deep value” – what changes lives is the people and quality of relationships.
 

On 4 February 1922, a peaceful march reached Chauri Chauri. The people were calling for self-rule in India and were part of the massive civil disobedience movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. Police blocked their path. The marchers lost their patience. They overcame the officers, chased them back to the police station and set fire to the building, killing 22 people.

Mahatma Gandhi was appalled. His movement was peaceful. This was his fundamental value. India had appeared to be on the brink of independence but Gandhi pulled back, suspending the non-cooperation movement and saying that the country was not yet ready. For Gandhi, the end did not justify the means. The two were inseparable. His position exasperated allies in Congress but now, with the benefit of hindsight, historians can see very clearly that Gandhi's moral certainty was not a personal indulgence but was the movement's greatest strength -- the source of its influence. He realised that, like any voluntary association, the movement would have been pointless and powerless without an unremitting commitment to fundamental values.

If objectives pull the enterprise towards ever more challenging targets, values push. Successful organisation drive forward from a solid base of absolute moral certainty. Objectives are dynamic, changing over time, but values are unconditional. We don't know exactly what challenges we will face tomorrows, but we do know how we will behave.

Caller: How do you take big, global vision and apply to local environment?

David: An idea gets bigger every time it is shared. I do have caution against private sector/contractors that implement “change” on a large scale, ignoring the human relation dimension. Many social issues can only be addressed from the ground up, where individuals form relationships with one another. The leadership that encourages the building of relationship is much stronger than just the top-down directions.

Caller: How do you handle your struggles?

David: Patience is necessary. I took my daughter, many years ago, to the zoo and she was enchanted by the dolphin leaping 10 feet off the surface of the water.  So we stayed back and spoke to the trainer, and asked him how you get an animal to do something so extraordinary?  And she said that, 'Well the dolphin never does anything that he thinks is extra ordinary."  What happens is that they put the hoop in the water, and put its breakfast on the other side.  Bit by bit, they just raise the hoop and by the end of six months, the dolphin is doing this ordinary leaps that we think to be extra-ordinary.  Like that, too many managers hang the hoop 20 feet above the water and ask the dolphin to start jumping. Human beings develop in relatively small step -- steadily, not overnight.

Caller: I want to run a marathon as a fundraiser for a nonprofit I love very much. Do you have any advice?

David: Tell the story enthusiastically, of how an individual will benefit from the nonprofit. What gives me purpose is not the numbers or high level objectives, but the individual children and families. Have three stories that brings the nonprofit to life, and share it with passion.  The novelist Ben Okri says we become the stories that we tell ourselves, they are our “secret reservoir of values”.‚Äč

Caller: Can you scale unconditional leadership to political leadership?

David: In a recent article, “A Mayor of Small Things,” I wrote about “social acupuncture” -- finding those small initiatives that can alter the relationships around them. Think of how to we enable the roots of communities to flourish.
 
Wouldn’t a big story about big things be even more effective? The work of psychologists Leif Nelson and Michael Norton suggest not (pdf). Their sample populations were randomly assigned to list 10 features of a super hero or 10 features of Superman. When then asked to volunteer for community service the super hero group were twice as likely to sign up and, 3 months later, 4 times more likely to show up than the Superman group.

Why?

Because in considering the general attributes of a super hero we think about characteristics we can relate to. Reflecting on these attainable attributes shapes our behaviour.

Superman’s powers, in contrast feel unattainable. As, for most of us, does Olympic glory. That’s why we don’t have to wait for another London Olympics to inspire a generation and in fact it might be better if we didn’t. Pinpointing, supporting and sharing everyday acts of human achievement and connection is potentially far more transformational than showcasing the unattainable. My athletic son was excited to watch Mo Farah breaking world records but is inspired to emulate his volunteer coach juggling a passion for children’s sport, studying, family life and earning a living.

On a roll Gracia also told us that her favourite bits of Metro are the Stars column and the daily listing of good deeds. Others felt the same. Being a sceptical Gemini I can’t explain the enthusiasm for astrology but I agree about the Good Deed Feed. In amongst the celebrity gossip remote from our lives we are touched, influenced even, by good stories about people like us.

So perhaps a London mayor might catalyse the change we seek first with social acupuncture – strategic pinpointed investment in local activity and then with story telling as basic as “ordinary people making life better” featured in posters on buses and stations and trains and changed every week. Not a handful of heroes but a city full of Greater Londoners.

Narratives and activity reinforcing one another. A theory of change driven first by the parts and then by the alchemy. A big story about a mayor of small things.

Caller: How about leadership as people “working themselves out of a job”?

David: In our recent “Early Action” work, we try to prevent problems from occurring, rather than coping with the consequences. This preventative action will reduce the need of aftermath remediation, working some people out of their jobs.  Part of the inertia against change lies in the fact that we are comfortable doing what we are doing. We like living within our comfort zones, while grumbling. Change will have consequence for us all, not least for those who are trying to make changes happen.

Caller: Who has inspired you on your journey?

David: The unsung local people who do what they do simply because it is possible to make a better life for others and themselves. We don’t need to look for stars beyond our reach, but should look within our own communities. I am not a hero worshipper, but believe in the step by step human journey.

Nipun: We are very inspired by your embrace of diversity, humility, service, and honoring all lives that come through your door. How can we be helpful?

David: Change doesn’t come from industrializing ideas, but we certainly can share the ideas. Please check out our work at Change London and Community Links. Thank you for having me here.