Reflections on the paradoxes of public sector leadership development

Ian Briggs

The question of how we play a part in encouraging future generations of leaders has never really been more acute than at the present. The question has been around for quite a while now but perhaps never really satisfactorily answered. Some years ago a PhD study looked at the career paths of Local Authority Chief Executives and the startling conclusion appeared to be that actually wanting to be a chief executive was the only real common feature.

Clearly having the drive and the will as well as a fair modicum of talent was also pretty crucial, but how do talented people accrue the required characteristics needed to get into those positions? How do people learn to be good leaders and from where do they form their ideas about what constitutes an effective leader? Higher education clearly plays a key role in supporting this, and those that sponsor career-minded individuals to study expect us to support the way they form their ideas about effective leadership – but we have a problem.

Some pretty uncomfortable issues are in the ether arising from the Mid Staffordshire Hospital debacle, where managers may have been more focused upon targets and less attenuated to the needs of patients; and from some councils who feel that top managers are an expense and offer little value added to the way that complex organisations function. So the whole question is: what attributes do we need to acquire in order to be able to sit at (or close to) the top of public sector organisations in the future?

We are on the eve of commencing a new round of the Local Government Graduate Programme and we should remember the LGA in their wisdom resource this programme to reinforce the supply side of the equation to add to the talent pool – and very laudable it is. Yet it is easy to detect that these younger individuals as well as some of our postgraduate students are often a bit reluctant to play by the rules that the current power elite want to impose on them.

This can be contrasted with an event at a recent gathering of senior leaders where the issue of ‘networking’ became the hot topic of conversation. Being in contact with a group of likeminded, like placed people with similar challenges and problems was near universally reported to be a key feature of their role. They were asked to explore this in a little more depth and offer the criteria they would apply to the question of “what does having a good network actually look like”? The top three were:

1. Something that looked a little like benchmarking – are my ideas and interpretations of the problems the same as others who occupy similar roles, a kind of support for innovative thinking
2. Gaining early warning of emergent good and innovative practice (mildly surprising that was second)
3. Most interesting was the potential advance warning of possible career openings if I ‘fell foul’ of my current employer!

I am not suggesting that this was a totally representative group and that everyone identified with this last point. It did cause the most debate and even alarm in some, but where those with the most positional power are acting so defensively and needing others who would help them get out of a career fix suggests that younger talented people have some sizable hurdles to overcome if they are to be seen and valued as potential successors. The group were challenged as to who had potential future leaders in their networks and few immediately reported that they had – they did see it as a vital part of their roles to talent spot, but what kind of talent were they spotting? Most saw this issue as something that was separate to having a good and effective network and more a part of the job of being at the top!

All this suggests that we are facing a clash between an increasingly defensive power elite with a new generation who are more reluctant to accept the old traditions and thinking. This presents teachers and facilitators of advanced leadership development with a big problem. Should we focus our study on today’s senior people to try and distil out a model that shows clearly what is needed to perform at the top, or should we look to develop more sophisticated approaches to support development where the talented form their own models of effective leadership to prepare them for when they are ready to enter the realms of the new power elite? We favour the latter approach and whilst it is important to offer key messages from the history of leadership research, space must also be found for these proto leaders to shape their own thinking and become aware of what drives them to seek greater responsibility and accountability.

For the last two years we have asked groups of postgraduate students to explore their personal implicit models of being an effective leader. We have offered them a template from wider research into implicit leadership theory (ILT) and some interesting findings are emerging. At the top of the list is a powerful rejection of forming ‘power distance’ between them and others, they are possibly more comfortable with uncertainty and they seek to be part of something that is more collective and socially shared than just wishing to be part of a like minded group. If this is true then we can perhaps be comforted by the fact that future leaders may start from a position of wishing to be embedded within an organisation rather than sitting on top of it and that they could create new organisational forms that are more fluid and representative of wider society. If so, this can only be good for our public services and our traditions of local democracy.

Let’s hope this is true and it comes to pass that future leaders will be significantly different from the leaders we currently have – however please note we still have some fantastic leaders today – not all are putting energy into defending their roles, but the reported level of pressure we are placing on top leaders is unsustainable and something is bound to break. Can we as developers, teachers and facilitators help to overcome the very real pressures of being socialised into a role that causes people to perform outside of their own values system? If we can, then we must help those who are on career trajectories to the top to resist the processes of socialisation to become the new old guard.

In the 1960’s, Alvin Toffler took a leaf from the works of Isaac Asimov and suggested that there is a ‘ghost in every machine’ – organisations are so complex and powerful that they can twist people to behave in a way that they have vowed never to do. The story centres around a young employee in a fictitious future organisation who is treated miserably by his boss, he is psychologically abused and bullied and vows that if he ever achieves promotion he will not behave in the same way as a boss himself. Yes, you have guessed right – he does become his boss in time.

A more detailed account of trends in leadership learning can be found in Briggs, I and Raine, J.W. (forthcoming) Rethinking leadership learning in postgraduate public management programmes. Teaching and Public Administration.


Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

Strawberry-Tasting Chief Exec Gets Top Civil Service Post

Chris Game

UK local authorities are among the largest in Europe, spending billions of pounds annually on hundreds of diverse services. Yet it is the fate of some to be associated in the public consciousness, almost solely and seemingly forever, with a single image.

My guess is that at this time each year, the conker season prompts recollections that it was Norwich City Council that cut down roadside horse chestnut trees because of the supposed risk of conkers falling injuriously on children and pedestrians. It never actually happened – the felling, that is; I’m not sure about the falling – and it’s now 11 years since it didn’t happen, but why let that ruin a good story.

Similarly, it’s 14 years since Winterval was cancelled, but I’d be surprised if you get much past the mid-November opening of the Frankfurt Market before you hear someone recall how Birmingham was the council that ‘abolished Christmas’.  It was a complete, and cynically propagated, myth – as even the propagators-in-chief, the Daily Mail, last year finally officially admitted – but it won’t go away.

Northamptonshire County Council’s a bit different, in that its abiding image – at least among those who give it any thought at all – is one that it, or more specifically its chief executive, positively sought. Yes, we’re talking ‘Taste the Strawberry’, and the reason for talking about it is that the former CE in question, Katherine Kerswell – aka the Strawberry Lady – has just got herself a flash new job in the Cabinet Office, as Director General for Civil Service Reform.

It’s an interesting appointment for several reasons. First, it comes at a time when the exodus of several women permanent secretaries was, and still is, threatening to leave Whitehall senior management maler and paler than it’s strugglingly become over the past few years.

Second, Kerswell will be working alongside Sir Bob Kerslake – ‘Two jobs Bob’ – who, when not being Permanent Secretary of the DCLG, moonlights as part-time Head of the Civil Service. Macho man though he is, he could use the extra pair of hands, for the Kerslake-Kerswell combo faces one of the trickier tasks around: implementing a Civil Service Reform Plan that aims to cut an already demoralised service by a quarter by 2015, while improving the policy making process and increasing accountability to Parliament. That both have made their names in local, rather than central, government might just prove advantageous – or just possibly not.

Kerswell’s senior management career kicked off in here in the West Midlands – as CE first of Redditch Borough Council, then for seven years of Solihull MBC. By the time she moved to Northamptonshire in 2007, she had already acquired a reputation as a strong advocate of customer service and transformational change, and she quickly concluded that both would need pushing in her new authority. Hence Taste the Strawberry.

In an early motivational address to the Council’s nearly 20,000 staff, she emphasised the importance of residents recognising that any and every council service they used was provided with their money and shared in common the Northamptonshire CC ‘brand’ – except that, instead using the nasty marketing jargon b-word, Kerswell coined her instantly famous metaphor:

“I want you to think about ‘Taste the Strawberry’ as a message, and that strawberry flavour will be the flavour that is Northamptonshire County Council.  Sounds a bit weird, but I hope I’ve got you interested, because we’ll develop what that flavour really is that we get across to all our customers.”

Some staff undoubtedly found it – and Kerswell herself – not only interesting, but positively inspirational, and certainly in some sections of the council it proved a useful prompt for thinking about and challenging the way in which services were designed and delivered.  Councillors, however, always slightly sniffy about officers usurping their role as the public face of the council, were generally less enthused, and as for the Great British Public, well, what do you think? 

The address went on to YouTube and quickly became one of the most popular ‘news and politics’ clips – long since withdrawn, sadly, though the key bit and Kerswell’s own explanation are still available in a mocking BBC news report

In a similar vein, BBC Radio Northampton’s ‘Drivetime Bard’, Martin Heath, was inspired to compose and perform a not entirely adulatory ‘Strawberry Song’:

“Some councils are like lions, proud guardians of our land.

Some see themselves as angels, always there to lend a hand.

Some are just like soldiers – their courage we salute.

But I see mine as a strawberry and that’s a kind of fruit.”

There were further verses of equal wit and sophistication, but ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ it wasn’t.  Then along came, almost inevitably, Stephen Fry. In an edition of his Radio 4 programme, ‘Fry’s English Delight’, the ubiquitous broadcaster proceeded, contrary to the impression given by the relevant Google headline, not to bury Kerswell, but to praise her.

His theme was that banning words, even weird management-speak, is fruitless (sorry!), and he had no time for the LGA’s ever-growing list of words that councils should be barred from using. He was quite happy, therefore, to embrace not only strawberry flavouring, which I personally quite like – both in reality and metaphor – but also blue sky thinking, step change, synergies and the rest, which I mostly don’t.

Kerswell herself has never, as far as I know, expressed any regrets at all, even about the Strawberry Lady tag. It got her generally low-profile council talked about, inside and outside County Hall, and clearly did her personal career, already on a rising trajectory, no obvious harm.

Some of the criticism did get tied up with attacks on her nearly £200,000 salary, which, though lower than that of her predecessor, still made her one of the highest paid local government CEs in the country. But, to her credit, she proceeded to publish full details of both her salary and expenses on the council’s website, set out details of what she did to earn it, and argued – before Eric Pickles was in a position to require it – that her fellow senior officers should do the same.

In her new post, this won’t be necessary. Her £140,000 salary is already public knowledge.  It’s considerably less than she’s earned at any time since leaving Solihull, which might seem to imply that sorting out the civil service is a bit of a breeze, compared to transforming Northampton County Council.  I wonder.


Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political  leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.