How to make our officers and campaigns even stronger

Ben Vulliamy is the CEO of the University of York Students’ Union

Shortly before Christmas I read a tweet chain that had seen a lot of traction about the toxicity of being an officer.

The thread of issues and concerns voiced gained traction – likely because of the commonality of experience around the country and strength of concern.

It talked to conflict within officer teams, about the public nature of the role exposing them to unreasonable forms of criticism and accountability, touched on unhealthy hours, and could be summarised as representing feelings of mental and physical exhaustion.

It would be easy to dismiss these concerns – symptomatic of the tiredness after their first term or of a wider public perception of politics, elections fuelled by an awful period for government, democracy and geo-politics.

But I didn’t want to dismiss it. The chain of tweets was challenging our sector to try something different to help officers cope – because the training and mentoring, welfare check-ins, employee assistance programs, team residentials, sweets and arms around the shoulder aren’t working despite sustained and best efforts.

Stand a little taller

As I mulled this over I started to think about some of the leadership theories that have helped me think about my ways of working, and how I develop not just a leadership style, but a culture of leadership that is more comfortable for me and others – one that allows me to navigate the contradictions and quirks of students’ unions and the HE sector and a diverse and youthful workforce.

I also thought about how I try to use strength based leadership principles to make my work more interested in team, and more positive – using aspects of confidence and strength to stimulate inclusivity, creativity and shared success.

Strength-based leadership is about identifying and making best use of my own and others strengths. I develop an understanding of individuals strengths and work out how to coordinate these strengths among a team to ensure both individual and collective success.

Once I understand the strengths of someone I can help them to utilise them and by leaning on and celebrating their strength I build mutual respect. So strength based leadership can help with positive relationships, as well as project management and team leadership – because it’s a person centred management style that builds trust and collective endeavour.

I started to wonder whether strength based theory could be applied to the way officers design and run campaigns. Sadly I have heard officers often talk about the intensity of perpetual conflict – within officer teams, with union staff, with the university, with local residents and even with students.

It’s perhaps the constant conflict that is at the heart of the fatigue and toxicity that some officers are feeling – and that is perhaps in part due to the relationships they are forming – relationships that perhaps aren’t playing to the natural strengths or assets but about competing with them, ones that are about winning the argument about moving somebody from one position to another, or are about mistrust.

If we are able to see and use other peoples strength to build common support for our campaigns we are in effect mobilising a larger movement for our change – a movement of people who feel valued and respected, feel they are using their natural strengths and assets.

Footsteps even lighter

Building a community for change that is creative and diverse, and operating with confidence and strength, will be less lonely and a stronger engine for change than trying to change the world on our own in cycles of perpetual conflict – that perhaps were unconsciously designed into our campaigns and leadership style.

Even more than strength based leadership helping us to mobilise for our campaigns, though, is the opportunity to be less predisposed to seeing others as barriers to change – seeing them instead as people who might have something to contribute to the change we want to see.

Rather than manifestos and campaigns that promote injustice and inequity, talk about the enemy, about barriers and about misuse of power ,we could talk about the world/university we want to see, and the potential to solve problems by combining assets and strength and sharing responsibility and power with others.

If I ask someone to share their privilege with me and recognise how I can enrich their outlook, rather than attack the privilege they have and tell them I intend to wrestle it from, them I have framed the campaign around optimism, opportunity, strength and collaboration rather than conflict and attack.

This psychological step away from perceiving others as barriers to campaigns and instead seeing them as allies with individual strengths they can share with us builds a more collaborative, creative, inclusive and positive working environment.

There’s sometimes an attempt to label people or unions as either militant and aggressive at one extreme or “in the pockets of the university” at another. Perhaps strength based campaigning allows us to think of that dilemma differently – where winning a campaign or working with others on a campaign will be most effective where we share our strengths and assets, using specialist skills and resources effectively.

Campaign design can focus on utilising strengths and resources for change rather than identifying the barriers to change and working out how we force our way through those barriers. It’s neither direct action nor passive partnership – it’s about asserting positive change and sharing responsibility.

Ultimately I’m not against the power of direct campaigning or asking people to suppress what is often legitimate anger. I do think students and young people have been left behind in recent years and been ill-served by institutions and politics that seem to preserve and protect their power by holding it away from students.

But breaking that cycle might come by demonstrating and expressing some of the force for good that exists within the student body. It’s kindness and altruism, the ability to collaborate, the commitment to equality and a desire to improve the world around us that we can harness.

You know I dream in color

There’s an opportunity, as we approach elections for the next academic year, to think about how we build campaigns and leadership styles that use strength based principles to carve a powerful, positive, collaborative vision for change that might mobilise others to work with them.

Campaigns and manifestoes need not be about what the candidate will win and achieve – but what students and their unions and universities and communities can achieve by working together. SUs might usefully consider how they can help officers, from the start of their candidacy, to avoid building in perpetual conflict and mistrust – and instead try to look at how we harness the strength of other people and institutions to work together with us on change.

Let’s help officers go to wherever the positive energy of universities and unions exist, and collaborate with that and those who are committed to change.

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