Features: January 21st, 2005

Reinventing Leadership

By Keith Ruddle

The desire for rethinking how we ‘do leadership’ to ensure that it continues to be fit for purpose is not new. It is, however, perhaps being brought into ever-sharper relief by the increasing pace of change. This is as true, if not more so, of the public sector as it is of the private.

Nor is the sector short of initiatives or ideas – many of them Government led. The specific issue of ‘what to do about leadership’ has been picked up both centrally and locally by the Labour Government since 1997 in an increasing range of new initiatives, with money to back them. The Modernisation White Paper in 1998, for example, announced a ‘long term programme of reform’ for the public sector aimed at changing the way Government makes policy, services are delivered and how services are valued. It recognised that to achieve these far reaching changes ‘we must build the capacity to change and ensure that we have the leadership to bring it about’. It suggested that new models of leadership should be built around restoring trust, focusing on outcomes, acting long term, preparing for the future, and encouraging risk and innovation. These are familiar enough themes to those who make it their business to study trends in leadership and leadership theory but this seems to have heralded an explosion of new style leadership initiatives throughout the public services with examples in the NHS, Local Government, Education, Police and Armed Services – as well as for the central civil service. As part of this, Academies, Agencies, Institutes and Programmes have proliferated.

The challenge of large and complex services

The Public services are large, diverse and complex. They employ over 5m people in more than 25,000 organisations ranging from the Armed Forces through to small voluntary organizations delivering services at a local level. Any attempt to reinvent leadership without recognising this and without defining where, within these organisations, leaders are to be found and developed is doomed to failure.

Historically, the signs are not good. There has been, and still is in many quarters, a tendency in policy thinking about leadership to see it as an issue at the centre or top. This manifests itself in initiatives to do something about a core group of some 200-300 leaders who, it is hoped, can then lead and transform public services from the top.

Much discussion goes on about this kind of cadre – their pay, their rewards, and whether more should be brought from the private sector to bring in key leadership skills. Sue Richards in the Fabian Society paper on Labour’s second term uses examples of No 10 Policy Unit rhetoric to illustrate the immensely seductive notion that once you have your hands on power all you need to do to make things happen is to pull the lever and 5 million public servants will start delivering. If only!

Leaders throughout the system

What this model of ‘top down’ change management and leadership fails to recognise, however, is the complexity of the world within which we find ourselves. Who, for example, leads the education system in any city? Is it the Prime Minister with his ‘education, education, education’ mantra? The Secretary of State for the Home Office? Education Minister? Or is it the Permanent Secretary at the DfES? Or perhaps the leader of the Council, Chair of the Education Committee or Council Chief Executive? Might it be the Director of Education? Or local head teachers collectively? Or even the teacher in the classroom working at the front line? And where does the local PTA fit in? The complexity of command, interconnection and challenge of leadership motivation and delegation is clearly challenging. And how much more so when you add in a focus on joined up outcomes and a recognition of the wide range of cross cutting issues throughout the public services.

Whilst the desire to simplify things and link leadership development to established hierarchies and models is understandable it simply does not recognise the reality that the public services are a collection of complex adaptive systems. As such, they have many agents acting in parallel, they adapt their organisation and structure as required, they need constant refuelling if they aren’t to suffer burn out and they have enormous capacity for pattern recognition, anticipating, learning and adapting. In short, they have tremendous potential for achievement and change.

It’s important to recognise this and that it exists at all levels within the system. It isn’t the preserve of any one part or layer. Indeed, over reliance on the top can stunt the realisation of that potential and opportunities for growth. One only has to look, for example at the history of IBM which has gone through several cycles of more centralised control followed by less. Typically, it has been the times of least centralised control that have seen its greatest innovation and growth.

Learning from leaders ‘out there’

In 2000, the Performance Innovation Unit (PIU) published a research study on ‘strengthening leadership in the public sector’. Rather than follow the traditional ‘top down’ approach, in this study the team, of which I was part, took the approach of finding over 200 largely local ‘leaders’ from within the public services, getting them together, and asking them to tell their own stories of what good leadership felt like – from their own experience. Many of the people we spoke with did not display the outward persona often associated with charismatic leaders – but they had all achieved success within their part of the system. Their commonly agreed personal characteristics, often repeated in the stories, make interesting reading – aligning inner strengths of the reflective leader with outer strengths that motivate and encourage followership.

These leaders, however, are not just individuals working alone – they are part of a collective leadership in and across the organisations. We looked at many examples where strong collaboration was the key to outcome– education, research and development, health trusts and PCTs, etc.

Many other joined up mechanisms are now being used to explore collective leadership such as: local strategic partnerships, youth offending teams, joint home care initiatives etc. All these examples, where successful, see leaders able to achieve coherence across boundaries without being dragged down into the mire of ‘consultation and consensus’. Again the summary comments from the leaders contributing in the PIU study indicate the range of skills and qualities required to make a go of this.

Turning the ‘top down’ model on its head

All this suggests we need to rethink our model of leadership in organisations. Ghoshal and Bartlett suggested that managerial models are like Russian Dolls – with a top down view of resource control. In this model, the top team are resource alloactors who control the next tier down, senior managers, who act as the administrative controllers of the operational managers (‘implementers). They suggest that we need to turn this on its head and that we consider, instead, the importance of

  • Front line entrepreneur and motivator
  • Developer and connector
  • Institutional champion.

In this revised model, the role of the front line leader is shown at the top of the pyramid, providing energy and drive, motivation and growth – in effect, making things happen. Thus changes the roles of middle and senior managers. It also gives strong clues as to the key leadership role at the centre and this includes the politicians who have to master context, purpose and empowerment as well as be accountable.

Challenges for the next Government!

So, what are the challenges for the future? I would suggest six key challenges to be faced in reinventing public service leadership in the next few years. These are

  • To develop a system wide response such as the recent Leadership Development Commission developing a national leadership strategy that recognises the complexity of the task and the opportunities for joined up and adaptive learning.

  • To promote new approaches to development particularly in developing leadership in the field and learning from each other.

  • For politicians to become collaborative political leaders who think long term and understand how effective change happens.

  • To reinvent trust alongside accountability. This will mean, among other things, reconsidering how detailed targets and measures reported to the centre impact on leadership at the front line and the development of broader leadership skills.

  • The wise use of central control with a focus on outcomes and a willingness to let go and to engage with front line leaders in agreeing where the boundaries most usefully lie.

  • Developing or recruiting more ‘adaptive and informed’ leaders at the centre who have real experience of the front line and extensive collaborative and communication skills.

The qualities needed to rise to these challenges are precisely those they set out to develop. Politicians need to inspire confidence and commitment, champion the purpose and its values and trust that leaders elsewhere in the system will carry it through. If they try to impose it through a series of top down initiatives it will, as history has already found and as they themselves are beginning to recognise, simply not work.

Keith Ruddle lectures at the Templeton College Oxford.