IN MY OPINION: Chartered management institute

Chartered Management Institute companion Penny Egan, executive director of the RSA, explores how institutions can inspire change.

by Penny Egan, Executive director of the RSA
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

David Brent may consider himself to be an inspirational leader, but he wasn't fooling anyone else around The Office.

Being a leader is about more than being a legend in your own lunchtime.

And most of the numerous how-to business tomes about leadership often don't quite hit the mark either. Inspirational leadership means different things to different people.

Some, when they reflect on great leaders, conjure up visions of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Richard Olivier uses Shakespeare's Henry V to demonstrate leadership behaviours and motivations. For others, leadership can mean something closer to home, such as an influential boss or colleague at work - or even a parent.

But leadership is not just about individuals whose charismatic styles attract substantial followings. It's also about institutions and their need to find inspired leadership. Philip Selznick, Professor Emeritus of Law and Sociology at Berkeley University in California, says institutions lead changes in society by encouraging initiatives and staying away from top-down and closed-off systems. He emphasises the need to combine practical solutions with intellectual theory and history.

Less is written about institutions themselves as inspired leaders of change. To be successful, such institutions must understand the status quo and have a compelling vision of how to make the world a better place, communicating it with clarity, and recruiting and inspiring others to act.

This was on the mind of the Northamptonshire drawing master William Shipley when he gathered a group of like-minded souls in a coffee house in Covent Garden 250 years ago. At this meeting in 1754 the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) was formed. The Society quickly attracted the new movers and shakers of the 18th century: emerging industrialists, merchants and traders, practical scientists and useful artists. It offered prizes to reward those who could come up with inspirational ideas to solve very practical problems.

The institution was set up to 'embolden enterprise, to refine art; to enlarge science, to improve our manufactures and extend our commerce', a mission statement that the FT recently recognised as the oldest in the business.

The leadership guru Warren Bennis has explored whether institutions can lead societal change, especially if leadership is about giving meaning or direction, using trust in and from the leader to provide a sense of hope and optimism.

Over the past 250 years, the RSA has managed to address key issues and change society through innovations such as copyright and patenting, dealing with water and air pollution, the need for standard examinations to produce a skilled workforce, girls' education and more. Today it is involved in projects that include transforming the curriculum and developing an Intelletual Property charter. So it seems that it is possible for an institution to display the leadership qualities that can significantly benefit society.

The RSA has achieved longevity by displaying these qualities over a long period of time.

Numerous other such organisations were born out of the enlightenment that mushroomed all over the world in the 18th century. But only the RSA has survived and thrived, while the others shrivelled or died.

The American author John Kao reckoned that it was the Society's ability to spot an emerging issue, generate new thinking or practices, nurture and trial ideas or produce prototypes, then have the confidence to hand them on to others that has been essential to its survival and continuing relevance.

Perhaps this is what embodies the essence of inspirational leadership: the ability to stimulate others to achieve. Over its 250 years, the RSA has spawned, among others, the Royal Academy, the RSA Examinations Board, the Royal College of Music and Tomorrow's Company, all important 21st-century institutions.

Think-tanks and campaigning single-issue non-governmental organisations such as Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth have their plaudits. But few other institutions, apart from governments, could claim to be successful change agents on the scale of the RSA.

The Society has chosen as its anniversary strap-line 250 years of inspiring the future, and it has a continuing role to play as a leader of change in the 21st century. During such a significant anniversary year, it has a unique opportunity to harness the energies of its 22,500 influential Fellows to make a difference.

In a world full of short-termism, where politicians constantly have their eyes on the next election and FTSE 250 companies are held to ransom by institutional investors demanding instant returns, there has to be a place for an independent, apolitical organisation.

In my opinion, the RSA is an organisation that isn't afraid to think the unthinkable and take on the establishment. Indeed, it is an institution that has embodied inspirational leadership for the last quarter of a millennium.

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Penny Egan joined the RSA in 1986, becoming executive director in 1998. She is a trustee of the Campaign for Learning and Animarts, a board member of the Design Council and a commissioner for the Creative Industries in London. Previous posts include head of the press office at the Craft Council and Downing Street press officer during the Wilson and Callaghan governments.

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