Features: May 30th, 2003


By Andrew Price.

Reproduced by permission of the Public Management and Policy Association.

“Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body”. If the writer of this ancient quote were alive today, he would probably have been aiming his remarks at the vast literature on leadership. A search for books on the subject at Amazon produced 2744 titles. Of these, just under 17% (461) were first published in the first nine months of this year alone. Whilst this does reflect the importance of the topic, the busy public sector leader, wishing to improve his or her leadership skills, would be hard pressed to know where to start. Should they discover their inner leader or follow instead the 7 steps to certain success? This bewildering cornucopia of approaches is mirrored in leadership courses. We can get the facts via an MBA or experience them whilst abseiling. We can be mentored, monitored, coached or Counselled into leadership.

The problem with so much of what is written and taught is that it is specific to a context or a person. Traits, competences, methods- no matter how well researched- tend to have limited transferability. The more explicit and applied they are, the less easily transferable they become. This leads to apparent contradictions with hard nosed, cruel-to-be kind leadership on the one hand and warm, inspirational “servant” leaders on the other. Both are presented as effective, but how do we choose correctly? Descriptions of the inspiring qualities that leaders must possess may be technically correct but of limited use to practitioners who, like the rest of us, cannot reinvent themselves to order.

Leaders must be learners

In the light of this cacophony of seemingly contradictory advice, the most helpful observation I can make is that leaders must be learners. Not occasional, part time learners but determined and relentless learners. What they must learn depends on what they do and where they do it, on who they are and whom they work with. All of these things vary and the specific approaches that work for one may not help another. What enables us to act effectively in our unique context is our ability to learn.

The problem with such an observation is that I may appear guilty of merely stating the obvious. Surely we all learn? Many public sector leaders have been through years of formal education. Diplomas abound and MBAs are commonplace, and yet the Cabinet Office suggested in 2001 that “Good leadership is too scarce in the public sector”. While courses and qualifications may be opportunities for learning, there is no guarantee that learning will take place. Most of us intuitively recognise that education does not, by itself, produce leaders. Facts may be assimilated, writing skills honed but significant learning need not occur. It’s helpful to distinguish between learning that adds further knowledge to existing ideas, views or frames of reference, and learning that forces us to adapt those frames of reference to accommodate a new understanding. For example, the first sort of learning might teach us the fact that diversity in the workforce is valuable. The second type would lead to changes in how we act to make this a reality. It is this more profound learning, learning that changes how we see the world, that I would argue is so necessary for leaders. Particularly in the public sector, we need leaders who can question and change old ways of thinking and working.

Learning results in change

In the NHS, putting the patient at the heart of our business requires a massive shift in our thinking. It means that the needs of the patient must take priority over professional vested interests and administrative convenience. Across the public sector, working in partnership demands that we must deal with the seemingly instinctive desire of organizations to compete with one another. To learn the slogans is one thing, to change our thinking to accommodate the value behind them is quite another. As leaders in the public sector we are adept at learning to change the language and symbols of organization. We are less effective at learning to change the deeper attitudes that drive our behaviour.

To say leaders must learn is simple. But simple does not mean easy. Such learning requires both courage and humility. Courage because organizations often do not welcome learning that requires change. The anaesthetist who helped expose the heart surgery scandal in Bristol found that whatever we profess about organizational learning, top managers and professionals find it very hard to acknowledge learning that challenges their view of the world. For the public, it must be hard to see how such things go unchallenged for so long. For those of us who acknowledge the power of professional and organizational loyalty and our ability to filter out unwelcome information, it is sadly all too understandable

Humility is needed because as learners we acknowledge that we are “work in progress” rather than the finished article. If this seems somewhat idealistic or even other-worldly, think of the usual complaints made by users of public sector organizations. A refusal to listen, professional arrogance and a seeming inability to make an apology crop up time and time again in Ombudsman’s reports. Appropriate and realistic humility enables us to admit our imperfections, learn and move on. Equally importantly, it enables our staff to do the same.

Helping leaders learn

I hope I’ve made a good case for the capacity for profound learning to be seen as fundamental to leadership. Without it, experience is ignored and theory misapplied. I’ve also suggested that such learning isn’t easy. It may challenge our deeply held beliefs and will certainly challenge our working practices. Frankly, it’s easier to get educated than to learn. But what can be done to help leaders learn? Here are three things I consider to be vital

  • Unifying work and learning. The workplace offers the richest opportunities for learning and the greatest rewards for its application. However, the dislocation between what we do in the name of development and what happens in the real world is so long standing that many see it as normal. In NHS Wales we are taking the first steps towards making work based Continuing Professional Development (CPD) part of every managers role, where managers commit to continuously update their skills and employers commit to give them the opportunities to do so. Unlike many other CPD frameworks, this will be focused on outcomes, where learning results in improvements to services, rather than on educational inputs.
  • Learning by example. If leaders are to reflect, innovate and seek feedback, much of our practice and culture must change. Things which are seen as novel or the job of external agencies, such as evaluation, facilitation, coaching and research, must become mainstream. And the static, defensive approach which characterises the worst of the public sector must be relegated to the history books.
  • A commitment to public service. Cynicism is a major barrier to learning. It erodes our motivation to achieve high standards and, therefore, our incentive to learn and change in order to achieve such standards. I am not a dewy-eyed sentimentalist, but I strongly believe in the value of our public services and the right of the public to expect high standards of those who deliver them.

Nothing I have said in this short article is new. But I believe nothing less than a learning revolution is needed where leaders learn and learners lead. Our public services deserve such leadership.

Andrew Price is Acting Chief Executive, Centre for Health Leadership Wales.