IN MY OPINION: Chartered Management Institute companion Geraldine Peacock argues for passion in leadership

IN MY OPINION: Chartered Management Institute companion Geraldine Peacock argues for passion in leadership - Passion ... is no ordinary word ...' sang Graham Parker in the '80s. That is certainly true of current times, where we are witnessing a renaissance of passionate leadership. Gone is the talk of technocratic management, outputs, productivity; even emotional intelligence is on the wane. Instead, in these heady days of civil engagement and active citizenship, passion accompanied by outcomes, accountability and effectiveness is on the rise.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Passion ... is no ordinary word ...' sang Graham Parker in the '80s. That is certainly true of current times, where we are witnessing a renaissance of passionate leadership. Gone is the talk of technocratic management, outputs, productivity; even emotional intelligence is on the wane. Instead, in these heady days of civil engagement and active citizenship, passion accompanied by outcomes, accountability and effectiveness is on the rise.

Even when buying your lunchtime sandwich you may be given a leaflet from Pret declaring a number of 'passion facts' such as 'the team serving on the tills made your sandwiches this morning. At the end of the day we would rather give what we haven't sold to charity to help feed the homeless than compromise our standards.'

Mercedes Benz and Swatch, which joined forces to produce the Smart car, have called the top-of-the-range model Passion. Some sneered that it was a fashion accessory, not a car, but they soon found that the car outperformed many others because it was literally smart, good quality, quick to respond, low maintenance, economical to run, manoeuvrable, and most of all fun! Many of the qualities, in fact, of passionate leadership.

Until now, it has often been seen as the prerogative of the voluntary and public sectors to produce passionate leaders, but increasingly the private sector and government are embracing it too. The Association of Directors of Social Service, for example, recently issued a press release calling for 'passionate commitment' to improving services in the interests of children.

Tired of a target-focused, mind-numbingly over-regulated society, people are redirecting their energies to discover what motivates and inspires them.

And it is not just a gentle cautious passion but real sinew-stiffening stuff; passion that has a tinge of genius but often 'madness' about it; raw, blazing and unfettered. Passion as reflected by the American writer Jack Kerouac, who wrote: 'The only people for me to talk to are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to talk, mad to live and mad to be saved'.

People are more comfortable about being in touch with their feelings, less willing to be constrained by process. They are interested in making a difference.

Heady stuff, indeed, but people who are motivated and involved produce their best. As Robert Levitt puts it: 'People don't ask for facts in making up their minds. They would rather have one good, soul-satisfying emotion than a dozen facts.'

But there is also the dark, dangerous side of passion. It can deceive, cloud judgment and destroy. In the not-for-profit sector particularly, the spontaneous engagement of energies to create a charity are usually driven by passion for a common cause. It is a major galvaniser of action, which in turn generates loyalty and commitment. However, it can also often lead to pitfalls and failure, because it blinds reason.

Membership-based organisations can sometimes find that the passion that got the movement off the ground can inhibit the logic and pragmatism that are needed for trustee decision-making. Those who are usually rational can make bad decisions as trustees because they are too close to the cause. A clash of passionate beliefs may cause splits and lead breakaway groups to form new charities rather than solve the fundamental problems. It produces unacceptable behaviour when passionate commitment flows over the line into obsession.

I will never forget the parent of an autistic child once spitting in my face, because as CEO of the National Autistic Society I could not agree to the society endorsing a new therapy without adequate research, when the father believed fervently that it would cure his child.

The problem is that a thousand different points of passion produce blurred vision, rather like a Bridget Riley painting. But if you focus on these points long enough, you can find a clear picture emerging and producing a 'road to Damascus' vision.

Passionate leadership, which lights up the soul, requires organisational leaders and managers to balance beliefs, risk and dangerous dreaming.

Passion creates vitality and energy in an organisation, but it needs to be underpinned by trust, clear values and a preparedness to temper its dark side by risk assessment and impact measures. Then you can lead people with passion, using humility and enthusiasm to coach them in 'can do' attitudes that lead to 'dare to do' solutions.

Although generations apart, the philosopher Bertrand Russell and actor James Dean had passion in common. Russell said eloquently: 'Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life, the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.' Take these sentiments and add them to James Dean's immortal lines 'Dream as if you will live forever, live as if you will die tomorrow' and you have the essence of passionate leadership which, distilled with the ingredients above, breeds a new brand of leader who will inspire and endure.

CV - GERALDINE PEACOCK

CBE joined the Charity Commission in July 2003.

She was previously chief executive of Guide Dogs for the Blind and before that headed the National Autistic Society. Peacock, 55, has also served as chair of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations and as an executive committee member of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.

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