Prof. Brad Jackson On The Power Of Place & Purpose In Social Enterprise Leadership


Brad Jackson is Professor of Public and Community Leadership at Victoria University of Wellington where he was the former Head of School of Government and Head of School of Management. At the University of Auckland Business School, he was Co-Director of the New Zealand Leadership Institute.

Jackson has published six books—Management Gurus and Management Fashions, The Hero Manager, Organisational Behaviour in New Zealand, A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book About Studying Leadership,  Demystifying Business Celebrity and Revitalising Leadership. He has also co-edited the Sage Handbook of Leadership and Major Works in Leadership. He is a former co-editor of the journal, Leadership, and the former Vice-Chair of the Akina Foundation and the International Leadership Association.


Brad discusses governance and leadership in social enterprises, sharing insights on opportunities for the sector, as well as providing reflections from working with the Akina Foundation and teaching leadership studies.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you to academia and specialising in leadership within the social enterprise sector? [2:10]

[Brad Jackson] - Yeah, it's been quite a journey. I originally was a geographer. My Bachelors and Masters were in the area, and I moved from the UK to Canada to do my Master of Arts at the University of British Columbia. After that, I became very heavily engaged in adult education based in Calgary, Banff in Alberta, Canada. It was a wonderful area to work. That's where I got a combination of my postgraduate studies in neighbourhood and community change in Vancouver, and looking at the power of continuous and adult learning in communities, businesses, and government.

So I have a life long interest in promoting healthier communities and healthier workplaces through learning. I embarked on my PhD at the University of Lancaster in my mid-30s, and completed a thesis on management gurus and management fashions, which enabled me to move to Wellington, New Zealand. At that point I discovered leadership as an area of research and education in development. I came to it a little later in my career than most, but I realised that that was always my passion.

Most recently, moving into the school of government, what I've been particularly focused on is public and community leadership. I was New Zealand's first and only Professor of leadership. I basically had to be very much a generalist, engaged in all sectors, but more recently I've become focused on the public and community sector. There are now three other Professors of leadership who can share the load. Bottom line, my lifelong fascination is...

how do groups, communities, organisations, cities, sectors and countries, find a common identity, a common purpose, in a common direction? To me, that's the critical contribution that leadership makes.

In particular, when that works and when that doesn't work so well. Long winded answer, but it's been a journey, but there are some common threads throughout.


As the former Head of School of Government at Victoria University of Wellington, you also coordinate a course called Leading Social Enterprise. What have you learned from teaching this course? How do you think students best learn these leadership skills? [4:34]

There aren't many privileges associated with being Head of School of Government, but actually being able to volunteer to teach in summer. It came from my work on the Akina Board in New Zealand, and Akina is charged with promoting the growth of social enterprise in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and it's interesting. I came across social enterprise through that governance work originally. Because of my role as Head of School of Government, they were looking for an academic who had connections with government. At that point I thought that was a wonderful opportunity to offer an undergraduate course in the public policy realm to our students who are from the humanities, like political science students, sociologists et cetera, as well as law students, business students et cetera, in an intensive summer format.

What most excited me about social enterprise is its commitment obviously to social change, social betterment, but the importance of being able to draw on and to connect these very different sectors; the private, the public, the not for profit and in our case, in Aotearoa, New Zealand, the Iwi Indigenous Maori sector.

So it's that challenge of being able to work and connect and to encourage students to basically, not only appreciate, but relish the opportunity to engage with these different sectors in order to be able to advance the public and the social good.

As far as teaching, Alex Hannant (Chief Executive of Akina) and I co-teach the course and we draw on the Akina Foundation staff who run incubators, accelerators throughout the country. We draw on their expertise. Essentially we challenge the students to create a business plan for social enterprise in five weeks. There's sort of a sense of urgency, a sense of challenge, but what we particularly do is encourage them to think conceptually to take that huge, big picture global... get a real appreciation for social enterprise on a global basis and keep making connections to the challenges that they're facing right here in the Wellington context and try to instil, in addition to the knowledge, some skill development to help them build their case in the final presentations.

The thing that I'm most satisfied from is there are a number of humanity students (I was a humanities social science students originally who had a sort of inbuilt knee jerk reaction to anything associated with business) and in five weeks, I wouldn't say they become corporate Zealots, but they do recognise the importance of and appreciate that...

good business with good objectives and good purposes actually can be a really important engine for social change.

So just making that transformation in getting them to think about a career where they would actively want to engage with different sectors as they move through their career is probably the most powerful learning that I've seen from the students.

Brad, you recently co-authored a paper called 'the distinctive challenges and opportunities for creating leadership within social enterprises' alongside Matthew Nicoll and Michael Roy. What were your key arguments within that paper? [8:14]

It was a kind of crossover paper. I seem to specialise in crossovers, so in other words connecting fields that historically have been working in reasonable isolation.

In social enterprise, a lot of the focus quite rightly has been on entrepreneurship, on articulating performance, on articulating goals, etc, but not that much [focus] on the leadership process and even less on the governance of social enterprise.

Yet from my home field which is leadership studies, I hadn't seen any, or very limited acknowledgement of social enterprise as a distinctive leadership context.

What makes the connection even more powerful and I think even more timely is social enterprise has moved from being a fringe movement to more of a mainstream movement. Actually the leadership challenges were always difficult, but they've become that much more complex. The need to create a cross sectoral context for social enterprise has really lifted the governance leadership challenges.

What's really exciting about the field of leadership studies is that... (I'm smiling because I've just finally submitted the third version of the very short book on leaders studying leadership)... Is that...

[leadership studies] has come of age to be much more focused on collective distributed leadership as opposed to the traditional heroic top down motions of visionary leadership.

Intellectually, an awful lot of those that study leadership studies are much better aligned with those who are engaged in social enterprise, both in ideological terms, but also in their operation (modus operandi). I think the timing is right. I think both fields will be the richer for that integration. I hope so anyway, that's the intension.

What do you think one of the most common leadership issues then that you've come across which sees organisations performing really ineffectively? [10:29]

That list is probably longer than the list in terms of effectiveness.

I think one of the most important things is creating a shared sense of what good leadership is and how it is created and what are the responsibilities for everybody not only within the organisation, but also beyond.

My favourite leadership thinker Keith Grint talks about the need to think of leadership as an essentially contested concepts like power. It's something that's always in play. It's always being constructed. This is why the title of this social enterprise paper is around creating. What's funny, the reviewers were saying to us, "What do you mean by creating leadership?"

The way I look at it, it's a 24/7 task not only for "formally appointed" leadership, but those who are in "non or following roles", etc. But also I see the influence of governance. It's really powerful in terms of setting the context for leadership and not only thinking about leadership within the social enterprise, but far more and more critically leadership throughout the organisation in its much broader context.

If you were to say to me, 'what are the problems?', I think there are those who have a very circumscribed idea about what leadership is and whose responsibility it is. Not only those that are in more conventional organisational settings, but also those that work in social enterprise. A number of them have basically opted out of corporate settings or government settings because they don't want to do the traditional top down hierarchical leadership. What I'm trying to argue is to say that's not the only way leadership can be practised. To argue that there is no room for "structure" or any form of hierarchy because that's the only way you get effective leadership, I challenge that.

To me, it's really getting a sense about the responsibility to ensure that the group, the organisation etc has a clear sense of who it is, why it's here, and where it needs to move and to create and environment where that's constantly, not so much negotiated, which I think is vital, but we often get very trapped by our models of leadership.

I think there can be some very narrow minded thinking. I think one of the things that I've tried to do is to challenge people's assumptions and to open up. Also to develop their own distinctive ways of creating leadership that are integral to who they are and what they believe in.


As former Vice Chair of the Akina foundation in New Zealand then, you've obviously got some great understanding of the social enterprise sector over there. How have you seen the sector transform and change over the last five years or so and where do you see it heading? [13:18]

It's a wonderful time to ask that question because as we were talking earlier, I had the great, great privilege of being one of the 1600 plus who gathered at the Social Enterprise World Forum in Christchurch here in Aetearoa, New Zealand and Akina played a critical role with many other partners in hosting the ninth world forum.

There were among the 1600 from 44 different countries.

There was a sense of how far we had come as a country as far as social enterprise, but also to recognise we can step back, but actually the really serious work is now in play.

When I talked to Alex Hannant, his global view, in some respects, is New Zealand was a little lighter in terms of coming into developing a social enterprise ecosystem compared to the likes of Scotland, England, Canada, Australia, the US etc and other countries like Korea, for example Taiwan. The advantage that we have in New Zealand with only four and a half million, is that we have the ability and we have a very outward focus and we do look a lot around the rest of the world. We've been able to learn about what's worked really well in those ecosystems. So we've been able to move forward reasonably quickly I believe. Certainly from a vantage point of the Akina board; I'll tell you I've had a number of government experiences, but that by far has been the finest experience because you have business brains, you have government brains, you have NGO brains, Iwi brains around the table there. Some days you think you're well ahead, moving ahead, and then there are setbacks, things don't come through, etc. The thing is you can overestimate the progress that's been made, but overall we've estimated that there are 2000 social enterprises in the country. Akina has worked with 700, so it is growing.

What's interesting is a lot of terrific individual, small organisation effort. But we are starting to build a whole system, ecosystem that involves government, that involves corporate partners and involves Iwi too.

'Transform' might be too strong a word, but certainly I've seen a collective will in a sense that we have reached a stage where this is not going away and in actual fact, we need to start contemplating how we start to mainstream social enterprise, where it becomes the new norm as opposed to a provocative outlier.

I think making that transition is going to be really, really, really critical, not only within Aetearoa, New Zealand, but also throughout the rest of the world too.

Brad, what steps do you believe government need to take then to help foster and support this innovative social sector? [16:36]

That's something we, Akina, have been working assiduously with the government here in New Zealand to develop a cross-government strategy. We've actually got to that stage. One of the things that's interesting is which agencies or departments should take responsibility. Where does it lie? The whole power of social enterprise is that it's an integrative exercise. One of the things that we've worked hard on is not only getting a strong political understanding about what the opportunities are with social enterprise and what are the resource requirements, etc, and also being clear about what it's not; I think that's a very important thing, and what it can't do, is also working with the policy leaders and the various CEs of the agencies to ensure they understand and they get a feel for what social enterprise can achieve or can't achieve.

We've put in a lot of effort and time, not only from Akina, but there's been the task force that's worked through to create a national... It's taken time, but I think that it's time that's been very well spent in the process of hoping to secure some funding for the entire sector too. I think one of the things that I've generally been thinking about government, is that there is this idea that it needs to be "the hub" for everything. Yet what I try to encourage, is for them to take a kind of a noble perspective in terms of their role. Really good government roles are actually... They can provide the broad playing field, the playing ground and some of the "financial support" etc, and the long term commitment to fostering an ecosystem, but they also need to make sure they need to create the space for the NGO sector, the private sector, Iwi sector to take ownership as well so they can become...

I guess the buzz word is around co-production or co-design.

I think it's a tough balance because there's a sense of potential risk, the temptation to want to completely regulate and to build accountability mechanisms etc. getting that tension right between letting go and supporting, but also guiding I think is really important. I feel all the work we've put in I think will pay off in New Zealand. Certainly our Prime Minister, our current prime minister, (and of course we're waiting for the decision about who will lead the next government) Bill English certainly gets the importance of social enterprise as a broader "social investment" social innovation strategy which our government is committed to.

I would say it's something that takes time, it takes effort, it takes a lot of patience, but I think the important thing is to create a whole of government and a whole of social enterprise system strategy.

I think we've got quite close to that here. I'm hoping that's going to pay off in the years to come.


You mentioned co-design before. How do you believe communities can most effectively be engaged by councils and governments in order to co-design effective responses to complex problems? [20:05]

To be honest, that's my passion in terms of the research these days. I've been on research and study leave. I've spent time in the UK and Brazil and Australia where I met you.

The power of place is a really important anchoring idea around leadership initiatives to tackle problems at the coalface.

And to ensure that you build that coalition of community leaders, local central government, and private sector and Indigenous leaders to work on the problem. But to start at a fairly small level; something that is actually particularly significant for that particular place, build some confidence around that, start to build in some governance arrangements to sustain that effort and to really learn and appreciate what each of those partners can bring to the table.

To me, that is really important. Who are the drivers here? In my experience the NGO leaders and sometimes the business leaders are actually the ones that arrive to kind of initiate, take the initiative. Government and the government levels can actually play a kind of supporting and a guiding role and to support and create the infrastructure for that, to sustain that particular effort.

Co-design; there are various frameworks that have been designed, but what's really impressed me is sort of that it's about the artistry, the individual and the willingness for groups to take chances, to take risks, but to open up and to really work together with frequently the most unlikely allies to tackle these issues.

Usually the rule of thumb for me is that I ask community groups and say, "Who would you create most surprise from from people who know you to work with?" That usually then gives them a sense that they're actually taking this seriously. They're going to that next step. I suppose the old phrase might be 'unlikely bed fellows'. Who are those to come together to tackle that?

I'm very impressed by the whole power of place and purpose in leadership. I'm encouraging people to move away from the whole personality, impositional obsession around leadership and actually saying, 'it starts where you are.' One of the key acts of leadership is actually to define what is important as far as place and purpose is concerned.

What inspiring projects or initiatives have you come across recently then, Brad, that are creating positive social change? I'm sure you've got a huge list after being at the Social Enterprise World Forum? [23:00]

Close to home for you. I was in Brisbane for two months. I was being hosted by Policy Innovation over at Griffith university. Griffith is a founding partner of the Logan Together initiative. Logan is a city in Southeast Queensland. There is a number of distinctive social, political, and cultural challenges. Again, this is about a place, but they've actually said there's something distinctive that we want to tackle in this particular place and it's around children and particularly from the years zero to eight. They've identified some very key metrics that they want to tackle over a ten year period.

What's exciting is they've brought (again, going to this notion of unusual bed fellows), business, they've brought government, local, central and indigenous. They are probably the most diverse city in Australia, one of them anyway. They brought very distinctive NGO and cultural groups.

What I found particularly exciting is that Griffith university has been a key contributor, a key partner, but also host to a number of the initiatives there. I really enjoyed working with the academics from across whether it's criminology, from psychology, from health, from politics, from housing, to actually come up with a cross disciplinary understanding the problem, but also solutions for the problem.

It's still relatively early days. I think it's been going for three years, but I was very excited by that. I felt that was a very rich example of place based leadership.

To finish off then, as an author yourself, I'm looking forward to hearing which books you'd recommend to our listeners? [25:10]

Well, it's funny in social enterprise, we found finding core text in social enterprise is really, really difficult. Because the field is just changing so remarkably and there are so many great resources from practitioners, from agencies, etc. We have historically used the text 'Understanding Social Enterprise', written by Rory Ridley Duff and Mike Bull. What's great about that text is they do a great job of anchoring social enterprise in its historic roots in the corporative collective movement there. They provide a very good global perspective too. One of the things we ask our students to do is to study a social enterprise eco system, whether it's a city or a country. We want them to get a sense of the huge variety.

We have a caveat though when we ask them and that is that they cannot study Scotland because Scotland is kind of the gold standard of social enterprise.

They keep saying, 'why can't New Zealand be more like Scotland?'

[Brad also recommends 'An Intimate History of Humanity', before providing some wise words to wrap up the podcast.]


Initiatives, resources and people mentioned on the podcast

Recommended books


You can contact Brad on LinkedIn. Please feel free to leave comments below.

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