Fierce Leading (4) ‘Being firm on the goals but flexible on the means’

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I’ve considered the people I respect as leaders this week and I think part of what I’m trying to highlight in this series is the potential unlikelihood of leadership in a person, the unfamiliar places leadership can be found and the values that shape these leaders being unpredictable sometimes.  People talk about Mandela as a phenomenal leader, which he was but he also spent a large part of his life identified as a terrorist, people talk about Martin Luther King who was treated suspiciously and criminally and viewed as an inconvenient bother by the authorities a lot of the time.  Women that fought for the vote for women were treated as lunatics and criminals, held down and force fed and beaten for not conforming.  At the time that these people were demonstrating their leadership and creating a following they were viewed by and portrayed to the general public as scary, as nonsense as illegal and improper.  Are these then the markers of leadership?  Not the smart suits, the impeccable record, the shiny family photos and the watertight policies and manifestos.  Should we be looking for the people making change at the edges, being criticised, struggling for funding and who are giving voices to the voiceless  and not increasing the volume of the powerful?  I think there are a lot of people for whom these questions resonate and many of them are change makers who have no intention of running for politics or what you could describes as ‘public media leadership’ – they’re hoping to lead because people are asking to follow them or they’re already leading because people are following and finding their own feet and confidence to lead themselves and their communities.  This series I hope has introduced you to some of these people, some of these amazing women, different, unusual, unlikely perhaps but each of them leading without even knowing it some of the time.

Introducing: Kerry Anthony – Chief Executive – DePaul Ireland

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I met Kerry’s organisation before I met Kerry herself despite her always being around our mutual friendship circles, I have always had the deepest respect and the most time for folk working in homelessness and with the homeless.  Whether it’s via social services, community outreach, domestic violence or advocacy I’ve never met people in a homelessness support role that don’t profoundly care and shape what they do around the people they serve.  When I first encountered DePaul I was struck by their unique low threshold approach – giving people opportunity after opportunity to access support and shelter and services despite their addiction, violence, trauma or mental ill health. Not only were these values really remarkable but the staff had such ownership of the values, an incredibly low staff turnover and a real passion from staff to see services evolve and be the best they could be.  There’s an intensity to Kerry, not only is she an incredibly skilled and professional leader, but this intensity I think translates into integrity and sincerity when it comes to standing over a big organisation that has a message as well as a service.  How we look after our most vulnerable and exposed in our society bears an incredible reflection on our society as a whole and Kerry is leading and defining a model of social justice which could profoundly change the world – who’s looking and listening I wonder…?  Meet Kerry here:

What do you love about what you do and why?

I love the fact that even though it has been some time since I worked in front line services, I still get up every day knowing that I am working for people who are homeless. I love the diversity of my job, I travel a lot, I face daily business challenges and this suits me as a woman who likes a challenge and gets bored easily – there’s no chance of that here!.  Most of all I love the fact that we have collectively built an organisation that is values driven, our values are the glue that holds us together, they are lived and breathed in the organisation in good times and in hard. I think this is fairly unique

Can you talk about/describe a couple of personal key moments or experiences that you think shaped your interest and passion for the work and roles you currently hold?

I went to London when I was 21 to work as a volunteer for six months and then I was due to come home and become a teacher. I can’t really explain it but working in a hostel for young people in South East London, I just knew I’d found the thing that I knew that I wanted to do. Sitting opposite men and women, hearing their stories, seeing something that I could relate to myself in each and every one, I was sold. Every day I realised it was as much a matter of luck and circumstance that I was where I was and not in their place. I am paid, and paid well for what I do now, but there is also an element of vocation about it. I think vocation is seeing an issue and not being able to help yourself but to do something about it.

When I was working in Dublin some years later there was a big issue about people who had active alcohol and drug issues not being able to access traditional homeless services. An organisation at the time, then called Depaul Trust, came to Dublin and opened ground breaking and innovative services to support the most in need in the homeless community. I was working for the health board at the time leading a multi disciplinary team for people experiencing homelessness and I found at last that I could get some of the most hard to reach people supported accommodation. I determined then and there that someday I was going to work for that organisation.

We all have hum drum/mundane aspects and tasks in our life and work but what are the things that you really live for? Give you a buzz? Make you get out of bed for? Spend your whole year planning for?

We have a lot of services now, but twice year I make a commitment to visit them all on my own – with no visitors – these are the best days. Each service is different. I remember at Christmas time one year being in Stella Maris in Belfast (a project for people who have active alcohol addiction and a history of homelessness) and the service users had put on a play for me coming – I was laughing and crying all at once. The warmth I felt in the room between the staff and the service users was very real and I am always touched when people make an effort for you.

I also get a real buzz from getting a new service opened, agreeing budgets, bringing policy makers and other visitors out to our services and seeing the penny drop for the first time about what we are trying to achieve through our low threshold approach with people who so many others have written off. I feel really proud of the work that our staff and volunteers do and the fact that almost everyone in Depaul Ireland will go above and beyond the call of duty when required.

What is the stuff in your life that you think has trained you/prepared you for the work you currently do and are developing? 

Oh lots of boring things like masters and training and things like that. However, I think what I was taught by my parents when I was younger and growing up, and the ‘values goggles’ they gave me that I use to interpret the world, have really shaped me. I also think at times being on the receiving end of feeling badly treated, in a very minor way, always reignites my sense of wanting justice and fair treatment for others who are actually experiencing real discrimination. Also I am probably of a fairly determined disposition, at least that’s what others tell me, and I am quite resilient. I think resilience is really key in this type of role.

Who are the people who inspire you and why?

When I visit our services and hear the stories that our service users tell me I am inspired by them, I often wonder if I was in their shoes if I would survive. There are truly heart breaking stories of people surviving real personal pain.

I think the people who appointed me took a risk.  I was not really experienced enough for the job but they gave me a chance to act up and then was enabled to apply for the post. As an organisation we talk about taking risks and this experience really put this into action and has helped me see how important it is not clip other people’s wings but instead really encourage them to grow.

St Vincent Depaul also had some great sayings many of which are inspirational, but I love the way that he talked about being firm on the goals but flexible on the means. I hope that I live this in my daily work, I try to in any case.

If all the work you do could go your way and deliver the results you dream of what do the communities you live/work in and/or care about look like?

I would love to see a society where no one had to sit or sleep on the streets. I would love to see a time when emergency accommodation meant just that and nobody lived in homeless services for a long period of time. I dream of a day when homelessness is just a point in time in someone’s life, and a very short one, and does not define them and hold them back in achieving their potential.

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