The managerial-political interface: strong relationships prosper in difficult times

Andrew Muter

The Chief Executive’s leadership position in Local Government operates in a different context to simple hierarchies. We all manage at the political interface – what some have termed a grey area between the hurly-burly of big P Politics and the general management of the organization. And the relationship at the core is that between the Leader and Chief Executive.

Much has been written and said about these relationships over the years. In particular, Simon Baddeley’s research has provided a fascinating insight into the way that Leaders and Chief Executives describe the way they work together. One of the recurring themes is the way that strong leadership relationships are under-pinned by shared reflections about the way the partnership works. It’s the ability to describe, express and check-back on what is happening that helps to define the relationship and build trust.

The Leader / Chief Executive relationship can come under the greatest of strain even in the best of times. Where trust hasn’t been built, or is undermined, the consequences are huge. So you might have expected that the impact of the harsh financial climate for local government over the last five years would have placed an increasing strain on that crucial interface between politics and the organization.

I doubt that the answer is so simple. In fact, it’s perhaps more likely that strong relationships will prosper in difficult times. The pressures of shrinking resources, transformational change and spiraling demand call for leaders to raise their games. This is a test for the relationship but it’s also an opportunity for synergistic co-leadership.

In our pre-recession world, the managerial-political interface was sometimes illustrated through the development of policies. The dividing line was that although the development and discussion of policies engaged senior managers and politicians, it was the politicians who decided. In today’s world, this may be no less true. But choices have narrowed and the pace and direction of change is relentless and unforgiving. Political and managerial careers may not have been planned around this destination, but we are where we are.

That relationship between Leaders and Chief Executives has been tested in this grave new world. Local government’s performance in handling the reductions in finance, showing that we are fleet of foot in comparison with almost every other area of public service, suggests that we might be optimistic about the resilience of our political and managerial leaders.

In a recent meeting I watched a Leader and Chief Executive of another council explaining how they were planning to deal with the challenges ahead. Their explanation was clear, compelling and seamless. The tone and content of their sentences melded with one another into a seamless narrative. They had not rehearsed their approach – they had lived it, breathed it.

In time, we may have a new academic analysis which sheds light on the stresses and strains of leadership during the austerity years. Here’s hoping it shines a light on strong and successful leadership relationships forged in the heat of battle.


Andrew Muter is the Chief Executive of Newark and Sherwood District Council.

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