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A conversation on ethical leadership – with Cassie Edmiston

Ethical Leadership lightbulb

Leadership in fundraising organisations

Leadership. It’s a big word and covers so many things. And it feels like the very notion of leadership is changing, morphing and growing. Being a charity leader means much more than simply being the boss, holding a senior position in an organisation, and calling all the shots. And there are some very specific challenges when working in mission based, or fundraising organisations.

We listened in on a conversation between our leadership expert, Yvette Gyles (=mc Learning Director) and Cassie Edmiston (Head of Fundraising, Prisoners’ Education Trust), to see what they think it means to be an ethical leader.

» Yvette: Leadership is a funny word. It’s like the word strategy. We all seem to know what it means and yet it is hard to describe. To me leadership means seeing that bigger picture, and helping others to see it too. And then helping them to deliver on that goal or ambition. By others, I mean staff, supporters, stakeholders and even trustees. It isn’t the same as managing people – it is about really engaging with lots of different people and then pulling in the same direction. You need to be able to communicate your vision in lots of ways to help people to buy in to it.

» Cassie: I agree, and for individual leaders this means having some crucial skills. Leaders need to be emotionally intelligent. As a charity leader, I try to have some humanity about the way I engage with people. Being flexible and adaptable to their needs, not just thinking about my strategic plan. I need to invest in people – with time, with energy, focus and even with my budgets. I aim to help them to learn and develop. And also learn and develop myself. I’m always learning – leadership isn’t a done deal just because I have the job title. For example I’ve recently been learning more about inclusion and diversity. I’ve had to really challenge myself – I’ve always tried to be equal and fair, but now I’m building my understanding of the difficulties that some groups face so that I can make changes in how I lead. This comes back full circle to emotional intelligence. You have to learn, which also means admitting you can learn more – you’re not perfect, you do make mistakes, but you can move past them.

Ethical leadership: Cassie Edmiston Prisoners' Education Trust

Cassie Edmiston, Prisoners’ Education Trust

» Yvette:
Ah yes, and so many people seem to struggle with the need to be seen as perfect in order to be an inspiration to others. Leaders are not some ethereal beings, untouched by human feelings. I think people follow leaders who are humble, and are able to show tenacity when the going gets tough. They can be role models for handling challenges, rather than holding up ideals of perfection that can never be met. I truly believe everyone has something they can learn – even me.

» Cassie: Exactly. A huge learning curve for me when I became a leader was to say no, and I still really struggle with that. It goes against my nature: I want to be helpful, be involved, support people. But that can also mean overpromising and letting people down. I can’t do everything, and I hate to admit it! I love what I do, but I need to learn to stop sometimes, otherwise the work can overwhelm me. I can fall into a trap of trying to take on too much. That doesn’t help anyone. It’s a tricky balance. I need to be supportive, but also assertive. I need to look across the organisation and help peers or colleagues, but also take care not to overload myself or worse, overload my teams.

» Yvette: Yes, otherwise when people look up to leaders they will assume the only way to get ahead is to work, work, work – and then drown. Leadership is not about putting the hours in. It’s about getting results. It comes down to some fairly practical things – not being present all hours, learning to log off, not demanding responses but instead making requests, and focussing on making priorities clear.

» Cassie: And it’s about self-care, not letting everything become personal, but that’s hard.

I can take everything to heart: every failing, every challenge, every mistake. But it’s not helpful, it means I can’t be objective and so I can’t learn.

Being too personal is also not healthy. It can be hard as a leader to step back, especially when you care about your team and your cause. You can find yourself in a leadership position with colleagues who you think of as friends. But you have to focus on being great colleagues, and work well together to get the job done. I have to be emotionally intelligent, but can’t be too personal. I have to make tough decisions, and help others around me to do the same.

» Yvette: It can also be useful to be clear on what leadership is not. It is not, for example, telling people what to do all of the time.

It is not the same as management. It is not about being a hero or saviour, or playing politics.

» Cassie: I’d add that it isn’t about lip service – saying you want to consult with people but not listening to them, not following up, and not explaining why decisions were made or not made. Leadership is not about getting the job done at any cost or going it alone. It’s not about the latest book, blog, fad or buzzword – I keep up to date on these things, but then try to put them into my own context, and the work I’m doing. What it means for me, and the people I am working with.

Prisoners Education Trust

Photo by Ian Cuthbert, PET

» Yvette: Right, it’s about people – taking people with you.

» Cassie: People are everything. The hardest situations I’ve ever had to deal with are always about people, and these situations can take time to manage, but it’s critical that you make that time. Leadership has some tough challenges in charities. For example, in fundraising: I may want to go for every opportunity that comes up because there is always the worry that there might not be another opportunity. But I have to be strategic, and make the right decision with colleagues about who we want to work with. Otherwise I drag people down – make them chase dead ends and waste precious time. We are under so much pressure as charity leaders – I think the expectations are different. In part because of what we are doing, and how donations might be used. In part because of historic understanding – public perception is often still that we are all (or should all be) volunteers. That might be shifting gradually but there remains this pressure to do more and more. Pressure is what can lead you into overstepping those boundaries – to overworking and trying to do too much.

» Yvette: And that has an impact on others. Mental health and wellbeing for staff is so important, and thankfully less of a taboo topic these days. Leaders need to model this – as you say by showing self-care and prioritising effectively. And I think it’s also important that leaders talk about how they look after themselves, and respond effectively to that pressure. Words and actions are what people hear and see. Leaders need to understand that how people experience their work is a huge part of their wellbeing. Not everyone values and is motivated by work in the same way. But bad working environments are demotivating for everybody. In our sector there can be an assumption that people work for charity because they want to do good in the world so that should be enough to keep them motivated.

» Cassie: And that assumption can be dangerous. There are so many nuanced reasons as to why people work for the organisations that they do. And if you want them to give it their all, you need to understand what matters to them and what their motivations are. It may be the cause, but it could also be pay, office location, the team, flexible working policies – there are so many factors you need to get right. I think it boils down to the fact that, compared to many other kinds of organisations, we have the power to disappoint people much, much more as charity leaders.

» Yvette: To sum up then, leadership is about being flexible and understanding people; whilst providing clear direction and making tough decisions; keeping people at the heart of all you do.

» Cassie: And being ethical means modelling behaviours, communicating well, being honest and setting clear boundaries. It’s about balance – your needs, the organisation’s needs, and people’s needs.

» Yvette: So really ethical leadership is a juggling act. Not just keeping everything equal – but keeping these balls in the air, some come down as others go up. For example, being an enabler means spotting when someone needs more help, or needs you to step back.

» Cassie: Yes, a constant need to keep everything going, but focussing on the areas that matter most in any situation. And for me, that’s people. People always matter the most. Be emotionally aware but don’t respond emotionally. Learn to pause and reflect, and to focus.

Huge thanks to Cassie for her time, and her input. To find out more about what her organisation does, visit the Prisoners’ Education Trust website. If you have thoughts on ethical leadership, join the conversation @mgmtcentre or get in touch with

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Yvette Gyles

About Yvette Gyles

Yvette specialises in leadership, personal effectiveness, change and innovation. Before joining =mc, she worked in HR for several years in both the private and charity sector as an HR...