Social Leadership

Interview with Miss Cat Davison, Director of Service and Social Impact at Sevenoaks School. Miss Davison has written the Social Leadership module on Sevenoaks School Summer Programme. Miss Davison is a graduate of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, having read Philosophy and Management Studies there. She also holds an MA in International Development and Education from University College London (UCL). Additionally, Miss Davison founded and chairs EduSpots ( which trains, supports and equips educational ‘catalysts’ to lead community-led change in Ghana and the UK.

Why is social leadership important for teenagers in 2020?

The fast spread of Coronavirus, and its consequences, has certainly highlighted that our world has become increasingly connected; people are becoming much more aware that their actions in a one location have an unexpected impact somewhere else. It is clear that when we work together as a global community, the results are better for all. This will be a central message of the course; students will be introduced to the idea of global citizenship and consider the importance of understanding the impact of all your everyday actions upon others, rather than thinking ‘impact’ is purely limited to specific service projects. Social leadership, in my mind, involves leading informed and impact-focused strategies that aim to catalyse sustained changes in the mindsets and competencies of others, which subsequently enable those individuals to lead positive changes in behaviour in themselves and others, which ultimately result in improved living opportunities for a group of people.  

Teenagers that are equipped with a developed understanding of social and environmental challenges, the interlinked impacts of everyday actions, and methods and systems to change them, will be creating the global landscape of the 21st century. Environmental and social issues have become much more visible in recent years, with students taking a strong role in demanding climate action,  and the Coronavirus pandemic highlighting existing inequalities in society, as well as exacerbating them. I think there's a certain level of negativity amongst young people about the leaders that they've had as role models, who perhaps haven't led us towards the kind of global society that they would like to see, or upheld the values as leaders that others want to replicate; therefore, many young people are looking for leaders amongst their peer group.

What key skills do you think a good social leader possesses?

Sometimes students set their ambition too quickly upon being a leader without understanding the particular field in which they are hoping to catalyse change or acting with clear intent; passion is important, but it will only carry you so far. I suggest that individuals need to primarily focus on strengthening their practical experience and theoretical understanding of a particular area, so that they're not leading for leading’s sake but rather acting because they understand the particular change that they want to create, built from a deep understanding of the lived experiences of different stakeholders.

Social leaders need to also gain broader skills and understanding of how change is managed and sustained, building a strong skills-set in communications, project planning and evaluation, and identifying key partners to work with in the process, alongside holding a strong understanding of human behaviour. Once you have a workable strategy with a clearly defined problem and theory of change to tackle it, persistence cannot be overemphasised. If you are seeking funding, you may have to write 50 applications before one trust fund bites; you may have to lead many events where no one pitches; you may launch products which fail to sell despite convincing market research. 

In terms of communicating your social message, you have to accept that it’s difficult to capture attention, and harder to enable that attention to transform to action; many people are apathetic and others are overwhelmed with demands for support or behavioural changes. To succeed, you will have to understand yourself and your own values, and adapt your approach as needed, with the ability to acknowledge active opposition and resistance as part of the changemaking process; it can be helpful to focus attention on those that do come with you, rather than those who don’t.

How has social leadership changed in the last ten years?

Every social leader or social organisation needs to have environmental sustainability at the heart of their organisational strategy. It’s impossible to have a plan for change that doesn't take into account the sustainability of the resources you're using and the actions you're taking both economically and environmentally.

It seems that nowadays every social leader will have to enter the social media field and be able to navigate significant backlash, criticism and debate online that isn't always rational. In the past, when people were giving forward a particular view, there would have been people who were against what they were doing, who might have spoken in a poorly informed or irrational way, but they wouldn't have had the same voice that they do on social media today. This creates a greater need for resilience, but I think it also presents a significant opportunity: young people really can have a much stronger voice today due to these changes. It is much easier to create change on a global scale or build networks with people in communities that are quite far away from us geographically because of how connected we are.

In terms of consumerism, businesses are also driving much more change than it has in the past, also highlighting the lead for strong social understanding and ethical consideration within the business sector.

It’s also clear, unfortunately, that some of our political leaders don't have the same criteria, in terms of values, that they might have had in the past. When you have world leaders who openly cheat on their wives or celebrate abusing women, this makes people recognise that they don't necessarily need to be presented as a paradigm of moral behaviour anymore in order to gain a following.

How do you think social leadership will change in the next ten years?

Increasingly, anyone who is wanting to clearly present themselves as having a social mission will be facing a lot more scrutiny in in terms of having a clear set of aims, and a structure for measuring how those social aims are delivered. This is important, and it helps social organisation (such as charities, social enterprises or advocacy groups) to clearly define the change they are looking to create from the outset, and build measurement of key indicators of success into their project management framework.

I think that, increasingly, AI (artificial intelligence) is going to play an exciting new role in society; social leaders can look to harness the exciting new potential, rather than seeing it as a threat. Given fast growing populations in some areas, and the shortage in teachers that may arise, I think there’s a really exciting opportunity there for education entrepreneurship and leadership, through harnessing AI, to really give young people of the future the skills they need to thrive in a changing world.

How do you think the Social Leadership module in Sevenoaks School Summer Programme will be useful to international students?

The Social Leadership module will certainly give students the opportunity to look at how countries from different parts of the world (including the rich variety of countries that they come from) are currently addressing and responding to the key social issues of our time, such as climate change, gender equality, war, conflict, the refugee crisis and migration. They will have the opportunity to examine those different areas from different international perspectives. Crucially, it will make them consider their exciting potential as an individual to create change.

Students will also have the opportunity to reflect on the kind of qualities that are needed in being a successful leader. We're still at a point where students often feel that a leader is the one at the front of the class, but they will be asked to consider different models of leadership and think about how they can create behavioural change in others through working alongside people and presenting a vision, rather than being at the front and telling people where to go. Students will be asked to challenge their own views and conceptions of leadership and also look at the behaviours of leaders of past years that have sparked global change.

Additionally, students will gain significant skills in critical thinking and problem-solving. Both the social problems themselves, and the solutions to those issues, are not straightforward, with multiple stakeholders and systems involved. The world is also fast changing, so students have to think about how that solution fits, not just now but also the future – a plan for adapting their particular solution to the changing environment is key.

In real life, how do you think the skills learned in this Social Leadership module can be put into practice?

I think it's important that people don't see social leaders as people who stand apart from them. Any single individual can be a social leader through the way in which they form their values, and how those values feed into their actions. I talk to students about how, just through changing their habits on recycling plastic, for example, they can use their voice and understanding of that issue to impact others around them.

Students will be encouraged to reflect on inequalities that exist in various hidden forms and how power can be gained and sustained in societies; these inequalities cannot be recognised until you gain a toolkit to recognise differences in opportunities for decision-making.  This module will aim to leave students with a belief that they can be a social leader during every minute of every day, and explore the idea that embedding a service ethos in their character can lead to significant fulfilment - for themselves and for others.