Features: May 16th, 2008

Mike Bennett

This article was first published in Public Management and Policy and is reproduced by permission of the Association. http://www.cipfa.org.uk/pmpa/index.cfm

Local government chief executives are unusual and they don’t have much in common. Their job is also unusual spanning many professions and their agenda is set by politicians. To do the job effectively they need ‘nous’, but this does not feature on leadership or development courses. The author explores what ‘nous’ is, how it can be recognized and what people who possess ‘nous’ can do that others cannot. He explains how ‘nous’ complements abstract reasoning and describes how people with ‘nous’ are sharing their experiences with others.

Local government chief executives are a fairly peculiar bunch. They are often big personalities holding down big jobs. But aside from the obvious they do not always have much more in common. This is partly because this is a job with an odd career route. To become a chief executive you most likely come from a professional background, but you almost certainly have to outgrow it. You will probably have managed a large department, but you will now manage less than you used to. And you will be a leader, but you will get your marching orders from someone often far less well qualified than you to call the tune.

All this means that identifying and meeting personal and professional learning needs for chief executives—and those who aspire to become one—is difficult. While the market provides a wide variety of management education and personal development offerings, the development of one key area has typically been neglected. This is the concept of ‘nous’.

Nous, of course, has some common currency, meaning that common sense or practical intelligence that people use to see their way through a complex situation where there are no obvious rules to follow. It is occasionally referred to as a leadership attribute, but it is rarely found on the objectives of leadership courses and is certainly not part of the canonical, professional or academic discourse of leadership. This is partly because it can be seen as a somewhat hazy notion. Not only is it Greek, but it is often translated literally as meaning ‘mind’ or ‘intellect’. This misses how illuminating the term is in classical Greek and the real challenge it presents to those interested in developing leaders and leadership.

Etymologically nous is derived from the root ‘to sniff’ or ‘to smell’ and the Homeric poems are full of leaders with nous—those who can sniff out strategically important information. So, at root, it is a physical, earthy metaphor, based on one of the most indirect of senses. Nous penetrates the surface and gets beyond appearances. But nous also allows that there may be different perceptions of the true strategic implications of an event: it can be connected to attitude and personal values. Those with a will and with a strong sense of values will interpret situations strategically within the context of those values. Relatedly, nous is also connected to vision. It makes far off things present and allows people to visualize situations which are remote in space and time. In other words, nous is not just common sense; it is actually an uncommon, value-based perception. It is an ability or propensity to see the world as dynamic, unpredictable and open to change—and the will to change it.

Clearly this ability or propensity is rare and would be extremely valuable to any public services leader but it is probably the most difficult skill to teach and to develop. Developing nous means recognizing that context is a vital component of leadership and this is what makes off-the-shelf training packages so unsuited to meeting the need.

When the philosopher Wittgenstein famously argued that some things could only be shown and not said, he meant that words were not enough to demonstrate a proposition’s truth value. He was campaigning for some demystification of the claims of philosophy. This remains an important argument in most walks of life. Context is important and there is rarely a one best way. Certainly not in matters which concern the emotions, intellects and behaviour of people.

So in the same way that Wittgenstein argued that the truth value of propositions was contingent not on the words but on the world, so the value of a leader’s action is dependent not on the abstract reasoning but in the particular context. We need the practical intelligence that comes with nous to read the context and work out the best way forward. We cannot simply apply a rule or a form of judgmental calculus. The decision is based on a more qualitative interpretation of the world. There is no best way that can be said to apply in every case; but—crucially—someone with nous may be able to show others how they would do it in a particular context. This showing might then be helpful to another leader when interpreting their own context, and related issues, and seeing a way forward.

This is the rough working methodology behind the SOLAC Foundation Imprint (SFI). Established two years ago with an editorial board packed full of nous, we publish a range of voices that challenge our readers and stakeholders, and we also try to show how these challenges might be overcome. We do not sell ‘solutions’. We pick up today’s complex situations, today’s wicked issues, and show how different people have dealt or would deal with those challenges. The learning always requires interpretation in the transfer. We do not do toolkits.

Mike Bennett is Assistant Director General, Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, London.