Features: June 20th, 2003

Leadership: Time To Debunk The Myths And Face The Real Challenges

By Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe, John Alban-Metcalfe and Ian Briggs

Reproduced by permission of the Public Management and Policy Association.

Whilst we are obviously delighted with the current ‘craze’ for leadership in the public sector we also have two major concerns. The first is which leadership model is used. Our experience of working with public sector organizations suggests that urgent demands are being made of HR and Training Departments, to ‘get leadership into the organization’. These demands stem largely from the central role the Government is giving leadership in its Modernization Agenda. Given the extraordinary pressures to deliver on a plethora of performance indicators (PIs), there may be little opportunity to gain an informed view of the ‘received wisdom’ of the leadership literature, because there is simply masses of it around. This will undoubtedly lead to some adopting inappropriate models of leadership.

Secondly, many perceive the way in which the Government is demanding that public sector organizations deliver on a multitude of PIs directly contradicts their espoused leadership values, since they appear to be adopting an archetypal managerial or transactional mode of behaving. Achieve results, or be damned! The juxtaposition of these two imperatives can be both confusing, and more importantly, self-defeating. If top managers’ survival depends on the achievement of Government targets, how many can afford not to give this their priority?

We, however, believe that the two imperatives can happily co-exist, so long as there is a sophisticated understanding of what leadership is ultimately about, and how it relates to management. The leadership landscape has been dominated by the work of US researchers – most recently with the emphasis on the visionary and charismatic models. It is worth noting, that this work has been based almost exclusively on the study of white males. How relevant and practical are such models for every day life, for all individuals, irrespective of their role or level in the organization?

A new UK Model of Transformational Leadership

Our findings from probably the largest study ever conducted of leadership involving over 3,500 male and female managers, including individuals from minority ethnic groups, at middle to top levels in local government and the NHS, suggest a very different model of leadership. Fourteen leadership dimensions emerged, which we have grouped under 3 headings:

Leading and Developing Individuals’, ‘Personal Qualities’, and ‘Leading the  Organization’ Interestingly, our research in the private sector, found exactly the same key dimensions. We stress, that no-one person will exhibit strengths on all dimensions; these form a benchmark of good practice to support leadership development throughout the organization.

The emphasis in this model is not on heroism, but on serving and enabling others to lead themselves. It is not about being an extraordinary person, but rather a somewhat ordinary, humble, or at least open, accessible, and transparent individual who displays integrity and consistency.

Secondly , and possibly most importantly, the model celebrates ‘difference’ – difference in gender, ethnicity, experience, attitudes, and ideas. It underlines the importance of being able to see the world through the eyes of others, to take on board their concerns, agenda and perspectives and to work with their ideas. Team working and ‘connectedness’ also feature consistently. These elements include removing barriers to communication and ideas, whether between individuals at different levels, or in different teams and departments, or with outside stakeholders and partners.

Another persistent theme is behaviours which encourage questioning and challenging of the status quo, and which help this happen by creating an environment in which these ideas are truly valued, and in which inevitable mistakes are exploited for their learning opportunities. Leadership acts as a ‘cognitive catalyst’, shocking and even iconoclastic.

Gone is the military model, replaced by a far more exciting, complex and challenging one, in which the emphasis is on leadership behaviours and attitudes rather than being seen as possessing the God-given right that comes automatically with senior status.

Developing Leadership

Given that a manager’s major responsibility is to manage resources, of which their staff are the most important, it is undoubtedly crucial, if not a professional and moral imperative, that they establish how effective their leadership approach is and that they work to improve it where necessary. There is substantial evidence that this leadership skills and appropriate behaviours can be developed. Ultimately, leadership is judged by people at the receiving end, so feedback from a range of others – in particular one’s staff, is an important part of any leadership development .

360-degree feedback has a crucial role to play here. By itself, 360-feedback may not only be ineffective, it can even be damaging. To be effective – and numerous studies have shown that it can be – it needs to be carefully introduced and supported. Studies show that individuals who use 360-feedback data as the basis for further discussions with staff and colleagues as to what exactly they need to do differently, then turn this ‘intelligence’ into specific personal development plans, and regularly review their progress, can dramatically improve their leadership approach, as well as having an impact on both the motivation performance of others.

For those who ask ‘Can older managers change their behaviour?’, our answer, based onexperience, is ‘yes’. If those older managers occupy senior positions, then the answer is that they must! For leadership to be sustained, it must permeate the culture of the organization. The best predictor of the culture of an organization, is the leadership style of the most senior manager, and his/her team. The bad news, is that findings from a research project in which we were involved, which investigated the reasons why many attempts by organizations to change their culture, failed, clearly identified that the major and most formidable blocks, were the attitudes and behaviours of the most senior managers . The senior managers, typically, believed they did not need leadership development themselves – a total contradiction of true leadership – but, that their middle managers did. These middle managers then returned to the work place to have their efforts to enact their learning destroyed, by an absence of appropriate role-modelling and active blocking of their new ideas by senior managers.

What about Management?

We would stress, that both transactional (i.e. ‘management’), and transformational leadership, are required in organizations in order to be effective. In fact the real skill is in being transactional (i.e. setting objectives, planning, providing feedback, etc.) in a transformational way. Our fears are that public sector managers will become obsessed with meeting the targets set by the Government, and ignore the fact that any success will be short-lived, since it will destroy the very human spirit that ensures that our public services are effectively delivered. But perhaps the greatest challenge is, how willing will those in the most senior positions – who may well have been appointed precisely because of their transactional strengths – be to adopt a transformational style?

Dimensions of UK transformational leadership in the public sector Leading & Developing Others

Genuine concern for others’ well-being & their development

Genuine interest in staff as individuals; values their contributions; coaches and mentors; develops their strengths.

Empowers, delegates, develops potential

Trusts staff to take decisions/initiatives on important matters; delegates effectively; develops staffs’ potential.

Accessible, approachable, in- touch

Approachable and not status-conscious; accessible and keeps in-touch.

Encourages questioning, and critical and strategic thinking

Encourages questioning traditional approaches to the job; encourages new approaches/solutions to problems; encourages strategic thinking.

Personal Qualities

Transparency: Honesty, & consistency

Honest and consistent in behaviour; more concerned with the good of the organization than personal ambition.

Integrity & openness to ideas and advice

Open to criticism and disagreement; regards values as integral to the organization.

Decisive, risk-taking

Decisive when required; prepared to take difficult decisions, and risks when appropriate.

Charismatic; in-touch

Inspirational; exceptional communicator; inspires others to join them.

Analytical & creative thinker

Capacity to deal with a wide range of complex issues; creative in problem-solving.

Leading the Organization

Inspirational communicator, networker & achiever

Inspiring communicator of the vision of the organization/service to a wide network of internal and external stakeholders; gains their confidence and support. of various groups through sensitivity to needs, and by achieving organizational goals.

Clarifies individual and team direction, priorities, & purpose

Clarifies objectives and boundaries; team-orientated to problem-solving and decision-making, and to identifying values.

Unites through a joint vision

Has a clear vision, in which s/he engages various internal and external stakeholders in developing; draws others together in achieving the vision.

Creates a supportive learning and self-development environment

Supportive when mistakes are made; encourages critical feedback of him/herself and the service provided.

Manages change sensitively & skilfully

Sensitivity to the impact of change on different parts of the organization; maintains a balance between change and stability.

For more information contact B.m.alimo-metcalfe@leeds.ac.uk;


© Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe, John Alban-Metcalfe & Ian Briggs 2002 1