In Conversation with Perry Maddox

Talking leadership, hedgehogs, and the importance of not trying to change the whole world all at once

Perry Maddox is the CEO of Restless Development, a charity set up to support the journey of  young people to become leaders in their communities and around the world. He’s also the initiator of the Just Open Leaders blog. Balancing our 2020 fatigue with some stubborn optimism about what 2021 might hold, we sat down with Perry in the final weeks of December to talk about leadership, hedgehogs, and the importance of not trying to change the whole world all at once.

What is your particular area of focus right now?
Where I am right now, where I’m most interested, is the individual. How do you inspire and equip individuals who are ready to lead change? How do you take somebody who's really committed and taking action and help them do it better?

What really excites me isn’t just the big ideas - it’s also the boring efficiency of it. There are so many organisations out there that just aren't good. I'm consistently blown away by how poorly led and managed most organisations are - from social sector to government to business. It shocks me that people aren't better at listening, organising, managing, seeing risk and solving problems, empowering people. 

I love to nerd out here - how do we help people who are values-led? How do we help people who are trying to do the right thing… how do we help them to do it better? That might be all the way down to some micro stuff like how to  delegate. There’s a lot of opinion out there about how good delegation is about giving really detailed tasks, controlling outputs, minimising people’s freedom. That’s madness. And it sounds tiny, but delegation is the biggest, daily opportunity to develop somebody. To grow talent. And if you're not growing talent, you're not growing at all. 

So I'm really interested in that kind of micro stuff because most of the leaders I know fail. It’s not sexy, but many change leaders fail because they can’t manage. So I like to start there and try help. How do you run teams? How do you resolve conflict? How do you have the discipline to make things happen no matter how big or small the situation is? And no matter what your responsibilities are?

Then of course let's talk about the bigger impact too - it's got to be bigger than just what we deliver. It’s a different kind of conversation when you start to work into those kinds of structural barriers of what’s got to change in the world.

Is there someone you particularly admire who is working to change things for the better? 
FRIDA. They are all about young feminist leaders.  Activists and organisers. The best kind of leaders, collective and amplifying voices. They've got this Happiness Manifesto. And it's just all about who they are and how they work.  With 50 pages of beautiful pictures about how they want to BE as the heart of how they make change. 

What they do is a kind of power-shifting philanthropy. And that’s such an exciting area in general. Disintermediating philanthropy, cutting out the organisations who pass through grants to directly invest in local communities. A lot of big donors won't do that because small, local organisations are seen as higher risk. They don't have the same audit trails and governance maybe. Or there’s a higher transaction cost. And maybe that is true, but it’s the wrong question to ask. So I’m inspired by the people like FRIDA - cutting through the crap and putting the power where it belongs. 

I also really like Netacollab. They're a digital crew in the US working with community movements for social justice. They’re run by a pair of Latinx women. One’s a lawyer and the other a creative. There’s a positive, rebellious vibe with some legit, innovative advocacy going on. And what they do is work with community movements to land a better message and to make change happen.

Thinking about these kinds of examples, I think it’s good to challenge the way we tend to understand how people might change the world. The questions we ask are part of that. The binary political divides right now are so deep that I don't think Joe Biden's going to bring the US back to the middle. I’m glad he won, but we need to ask a different question. We need to talk about how we're ever going to get out of the vitriol flowing out of Fox News and MSNBC on both sides. We need to ask these kinds of questions, it's got to come from communities, it's got to come from people, it's got to come from business.  I'm just really interested in people who are working around those edges to talk about the big issues in a different way.  

Like what you've just done with Count Us In. Finally, not just some worthy NGO or non-profit telling me to recycle or whatever. I’m not being told that climate breakdown is all my fault, but I’m also not feeling that it’s so big and out of my control that I’m left hopeless. It’s not worthy, it's empowering.

Thinking about your area of practice over the next decade, what must we learn to leave behind? And what should we pay more attention to?
I think we need to let go of the idea we’re changing the whole world, sometimes. It's a little bit of the good old Jim Collins hedgehog. Do what you can do the best and stop worrying about everything you can do. Maybe even stop worrying about changing the world. What can you do better than anybody? The answer may seem tiny. It might be that you can run a water sanitation programme better in my community, like a young guy who reached out for advice about a grassroots organisation he’s starting in Zimbabwe. To me, right on, that is dead important. We have so many global campaigns out there that people start thinking that's the only way you lead change sometimes. Those giant campaigns have a role for sure, one tool in the toolbox, but the guy fixing the grey water running through his community is pretty radical when you think about it.  

So how do we really narrow it down, how do we have courage to do a little less, with a little more humility. This is where like people like me need to say to the mirror, you're not necessarily here to change the world. What we’re doing is good and right. Keep asking how we can change things. Feed that fire and keep fighting like hell for a better world. But take a deep breath and get over yourself just a little bit. It's not about NGOs, it's not about our organisations or our movements. It's about the mission, what you exist to do, so do it well. And if you end up changing the world along the way… awesome!