I am not a big fan of the Honours system which awards Knighthoods, CBEs, OBEs and MBEs every year. Again this year there has been controversy over political bias in the awards as the director of the Conservative election campaign, Lynton Crosby, was given a knighthood. And as The Times reports, despite only 7% of the country attending private schools, over 50% of the top awards went to people with that background.
But one name stood out when I looked at the list of who had been awarded gongs this year – and that was Neil Jameson, the Executive Director of Citizens UK who received a CBE ‘for services to community organising and social justice.’
For those of you who don’t know, Citizens UK is a network of different community organising groups across the country. They bring churches, mosques, trade unions and other civil organisations together to create change on public and political issues.
I first came across them about 13 years ago through the work of their first group in East London to fight for better pay for cleaners who worked for the banks in Canary Wharf. These were the first steps in the Living Wage campaign which now has over 2000 companies committed to and which has enabled 10,000 working families to come out of poverty levels in London alone.
Over the years the Citizens UK movement has gone from strength to strength. Their Forums they organise before mayoral and national elections to hold candidates to account for their promises are the best example of democracy in action. They have had huge influence on a whole range of social justice issues and now have networks in South, West and North London and in Nottingham, Cardiff, Leeds, Birmingham and Milton Keynes.
Neil Jameson has been working for 24 years to facilitate the growth of this work. But this is a different kind of leadership than many of us are used to – if you attend any of the Citizens UK events, you are unlikely to see Neil up the front.
Fundamental to the Citizens’ philosophy is that ordinary people take the high profile roles on stage and behind the microphones. It is not the community organising experts who grow their profile, but those embedded in the communities they are representing take centre stage. This is what gives the movement its credibility, authenticity and power.
Profile or real influence?
I believe that all leaders can learn from Neil Jameson’s approach – especially those within the church because it exposes the gap that often exists between profile and real influence. We make a mistake if we measure leadership by how well known someone is, rather than the concrete change they bring about.
The world of books, websites, blogs, twitter and conferences are important and can be used well. But they are also dangerously seductive as they create a separate, virtual world which is easily disconnected from where real change happens. The quick wins that can lead to a developing your profile competes with the slow, hard work involved in bringing about genuine change. The kind of activism that changes situations is different to the easy ‘clicktivism’ of the social media world.
We need to mind the gaps that emerge between profile and reality. When it widens, it generates shallowness, insecurity, envious criticism of others and addictive behaviour. Being obsessed with Facebook ‘likes’ and retweets is to feed a monster that will never lose its appetite.
A leader’s profile should be anchored to the real, tangible work they have done. And this is where Neil Jameson’s example is inspiring.
He has not invested in his own profile but that of the movement he serves. He has committed himself to create genuine change and empowered hundreds to become leaders for themselves and exert their own influence. It’s an approach captured well by words written in 1924 by the pioneering social theorist, Mary Parker Follett:
“Leadership is not defined by the exercise of power but by the capacity to increase the sense of power among those led. The most essential work of the leader is to create more leaders.”
The work of Citizens UK is making our country a better and fairer place and it’s great to see this acknowledged today. Of course, there is irony with those who fight for social justice accepting honours from the establishment. But, as Saul Alinsky, the founder of modern community organising, said
‘True revolutionaries do not flaunt their radicalism. They cut their hair, put on suits, and infiltrate the system from within.’
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