Relational leadership, group dynamics and personal identity

Kim Ryley

There is a general consensus from researchers that many of the skills and behaviours of leadership can be learned and acquired. But recent research in the United States and Britain, on the particular challenges facing public sector leaders over the next ten years, has revealed not only the need for a new skills set, but also the importance of these being underpinned by a particular personal mindset and attributes. Indeed, these explicit values, attitudes and behaviours appear essential to operating effectively in the emerging new environment – not least in generating the support and loyalty of others that will be necessary to shape the development of that environment.

It is already clear that the leaders of our public services must prepare for the future on the basis of dramatic, fundamental and irreversible change. The complexity, scale and speed of this paradigm shift requires an unusual degree of adaptability, tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity, and the courage and resilience to take responsibility for inventing the future without the benefit of any clear blueprint to follow. The adaptive challenges involved in this are not the same as previous technical problems – they cannot be fixed by experts!

In this context, leadership is not simply about creating shared intellectual understanding. Rather it is about engendering the trust necessary to persuade and motivate people to let go of what is now expendable. Overcoming the emotional resistance involved in this is about overtly challenging the beliefs, identities and feelings that will obstruct the extensive innovation necessary to thrive in the “new normal”. That is why leadership of change is so difficult – it threatens people’s sense of professional identity and self worth.

Fundamentally, the new leadership approach is about changing behaviour, through the distribution and acceptance of loss, so that people can, themselves, make the changes necessary to adapt to the new reality that is now emerging. Whole system leadership of “place” in local public services means acting in conjunction with politicians, partners, staff and local communities to create cohesion around what needs to be done, through shared identity and purpose, and a new sense of reciprocity or “neighbourliness”.

Tomorrow’s public sector leaders will be those who feel compelled to connect with others, As well as being politically astute, they will understand the dynamics of power, be able to read other people’s behaviour, and have the credibility to secure co-operation beyond their formal authority, Like a good Buddhist, their role will be to break through the illusion of constancy by inviting uncertainty, to challenge the status quo – and to change behaviour. But, doing this will depend on them being able to demonstrate that they live the values that drive them.

The changing views of local authority leadership emerging from research surveys of council chief executives by SOLACE in the UK, and of city managers by IMCA in the United States, rate highly the ability to manage complex inter-relationships and inter-dependencies. Indeed, performance is likely to be evaluated increasingly in terms of expert use of the enabling skills necessary to create new alliances, as well as to facilitate and operate in (formal and informal) networks. These include conflict management, negotiation, problem solving and communication. The challenge for leaders in this collaborative context is to be both authoritative and participative.

What the new research also shows, however, is that successful leadership in this context will depend on behaviour and individual attributes which engage and instil confidence in potential collaborators. These attributes include being:

  • Open Minded
  • Flexible
  • Positive
  • Patient
  • Persistent
  • Decisive
  • Risk taking
  • Reflective
  • Accessible
  • Accountable
  • Friendly
  • Trustworthy
  • Unselfish
  • Honest
  • Respectful
  • Empathic
  • Attuned to others
  • Ethical
  • Committed/Passionate
  • Consistent

For leaders of complex social systems, relationships and relatedness will be primary, all else will be derivative. The new research has illustrated what skills public sector leaders need in future to be effective. But it shows also that they are extremely unlikely to actually be effective unless they also pay attention to how they exercise those new skills – and keep their attitudes and behaviours under constant observation, as others will.


Kim Ryley is a recent Past President of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and a Trustee of the Leadership Centre. He has 14 years experience as a Chief Executive in four upper tier local authorities. Kim is currently a freelance Leadership Development Consultant and Director of Torque Leadership Associates Ltd.

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