Keeping the door open to new ideas on leadership: Why the public sector may be leading the way

Ian Briggs

In 1981, Ralf Stogdill published with Bernie Bass a taxonomy of leadership research. To scholars of leadership this Magnus opus has performed two vital functions: firstly, it has been invaluable in keeping open cathedral doors in a gale;  and secondly as a work of undoubted scholarly value that it is has served to demonstrate how often confused and misplaced a great deal of leadership research in the past has been.

What is not always adequately reflected in the literature and in much of the teaching of leadership is that many of its core concepts are often based in the struggle to better understand how politicians operate.  This has, at times, been lost in translation when it is applied to occupational, industrial and military settings.

Until comparatively recent times much teaching and learning of leadership as a topic has been done through trying to better understand the key characteristics of those who in history have been seen to be successful. This has led to students digesting biographies of the ‘great and the good’ – even today in military settings it is not unusual to be encouraged to read about Alexander the Great and extrapolate from his great achievements how campaigns can be led today.

It is therefore hardly surprising that we are socialised into thinking that to be an effective leader one has to be ‘charismatic’ – this is a term that is loosely banded about to describe an engaging individual who can illicit the support and followership of others. And lest we forget there is still a huge industry out there promoting these ideas, which seem to remain highly attractive to current and budding politicians.

At the forefront of our current understanding of leadership practice, we find the words ‘transactional ‘and ‘transformational’ regularly appearing. In current lingua franca, transactional is taken to mean ‘poor’ and transformational is applied to those who are seen as being effective, ‘with it’ and engaged with current trends. However, many students of political science may recognise these terms as being applied to political leaders; where transactional political leadership is …”vote for me and I will make you better off through reduced taxes” and transformational is…”vote for me and I will do my level best to create a better, fairer world”. But returning to Stogdill’s great taxonomy we can also see that leadership as an issue, a topic and as a matter of scholarly understanding is defined by having sudden leaps of understanding with longer periods of plateaus and stagnation.

I think now we are potentially at a point where that next great leap of understanding is rapidly approaching – and it may be arising from the world of current politics and wider society. Recently we have seen a senior Minister avoiding a critical leadership issue – stating that the decision whether to allow the wearing of the hijab as a clinician or nurse should be a matter for local agreement. I thinkthat should be something where a politician can demonstrate clear leadership and stand in the ground where opinion is firmly divided. Is it ducking the issue to say this is a matter for local agreement, or it is a reflection of the changing expectations we have of those who we elect to stand in this ground?

As I write this I am preparing for some sensitive work that is attempting to reconcile differences of expectation where senior politicians are giving political oversight to what are referred to as megaprojects – think aircraft carriers, HS2, locating nuclear power generation sites and the like – many of these megaprojects being right at the heart of concern for local government and local people as well as parliamentarians. But it would seem that those drawn from professional sources that operate in the role of programme and project managers are at times failing to understand the political pressures placed upon elected representatives. Politicians, too, are failing to grasp the challenges inherent in megaprojects. What is abundantly clear is that whilst some see a leadership issue at the core of such challenges, there is not one clear off the shelf leadership model that fills the gap.

It is at that crucial, pivotal point where political aspiration comes into contact with managerial competence that we need to explore a new language of leadership. Perhaps both sides of the equation are doing what they should do; politicians are articulating social aspiration and managers and professionals are applying well known, tried and trusted mechanisms of project and programme management. However, they need a ‘Babel fish’ (with due respect to Douglas Adams and that most useful of all managerial textbooks – the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy) to fully understand each other and each other’s roles.

Perhaps we need to develop a new model of leadership, one where the long term success (or otherwise) of leadership can only be judged by those who will step into the shoes of the leaders of today, a model of leadership that accepts that quick wins are just not possible and that we have to encourage leaders to think beyond the immediacy of the delivery of milestones and concentrate upon how they pass on their leadership much like we as humans do when we pass on our DNA!

But Stogdill’s taxonomy reveals that where we have enjoyed in the past great leaps forward in our understanding of leadership, it seems to have corresponded well with periods of plenty and economic growth. If we are to face another six years of austerity the question remains: from where are the resources to come from to help us capitalise upon the learning we need to engage today? It could be that when the fourth edition of this taxonomy appears we will have a new chapter that offers clear explanations of the ‘pivotal role of leaders in meeting social expectation’ drawn from how we managed to deal with complex, wicked problems of new high speed rail, aircraft carriers for the new age, new environmentally friendly towns and how we managed to generate new sources of energy. But, unless someone throws a bit of money towards us to help research this phenomena then that chapter will take a little longer to write and the current edition will continue to hold open the cathedral door in a gale.


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.

Caught in the crossfire: local authority outsourcing and the murky world of employment law

Ian Briggs

Given the extent of legislation affecting officers and members in local government, it can be rather misleading to see the influence of Westminster solely through the lens of direct local government legislation. Wider legislation on employment has arguably had as big an impact on the way that local government and local government services are delivered.

For councils the reshaping of delivery means, in the majority of cases, seeking partnerships with external providers. Where services are outsourced or delivered through contract, the costs associated with redundancy and passing over employment duties to others is an issue that perpetually causes debate and discussion.

The application of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 (TUPE) to transfers from the public sector, commonly known as ‘TUPE plus’, has been regarded as being more onerous on public sector employers than others. The Coalition Government has since 2010 gradually watered down these legal obligations but they are still regarded as problematic.

It is generally accepted that employment legislation is a problem area for local government and for many there is a desire to see a more flexible approach to employment. By implication, employment law is a matter that perhaps needs some review.

So, is this an issue that is shared in other places? The approach to employment practices that is enshrined in law across Europe raises some interesting issues. The media has made much of the economic problems in Greece, citing the high levels of protection afforded to civil servants and public employees there. The European Working Time directive is taken very seriously there; when the hours are worked the person stops and goes home! A similar situation exists in France and Italy, where anecdotal evidence suggests that even police officers, when they are part way through an arrest, have clocked off and gone home as their hours are worked.

The obligations of local authorities in a TUPE transfer are not entirely clear; TUPE plus has been significantly eroded but not removed altogether. In any future outsourcing situation, a local authority risks being caught in the crossfire between prospective contractors and trade unions. On the one hand, prospective contractors are likely to be reluctant to incur costs, offering generous employment benefits which go beyond the normal requirements of TUPE. On the other hand, the trade unions are likely to push for full-scale TUPE plus protection, or as close to this as they can realistically achieve. Any such situation is likely to need careful handling to minimise any potential exposure and legal advice should be taken wherever necessary.


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.

Damaged reputations (and how to repair them)

Ian Briggs

During a recent conversation with a senior product development engineer who works for a high end vehicle manufacturer, the importance of ‘halo products’ opened up an interesting conversation. Investment in such ‘halo’ products is a given in a highly competitive marketplace and the known impact they have on consumer behaviour is a strong justification for the high levels of investment needed in them.

The conversation turned to the near universally low esteem that this talented, hard working professional engineer held local public services in. To him, they were poorly managed, overly costly and rarely related to the wants and needs of the local people. Perhaps I should not have been surprised that he held this view but I did ask him if there was anything he really valued about local public services.

There was very little, but one service emerged as something that he did value – the local Fire and Rescue Service. He could find little to criticise about them. He cited a number of times that he was called upon to work professionally with them, and he saw them as having a very high level of professionalism when exploring vehicle safety issues. Any cut backs in this service he felt was poor political judgement. He was continually impressed by them and appreciated that in many cases the conditions within which they worked were challenging, dangerous and above all professionally demanding.

So why, if within the case he was putting forward that in the commercial sector investment in halo products and services is seen as a key way of leading and managing the overall brand, did the public sector not think and behave in the same way?

This contrasts with two papers that have crossed my desk recently. In both cases a strong argument is put forward for increasing the importation of private sector talent into the public service. However, in both cases the argument centres around the skills that commercial managers and leaders have in controlling inputs whilst at the same time improving the outcome quality of products and services. No mention is made of strategic investment in halo products and understanding of how careful promotion of those products and services that are known to be valued, even by those who consume products lower down the range, have a positive impact on overall consumer behaviour.

We did go on to discuss how the reverse could be true; could poor product perception have a negative impact upon products and services across the brand? The answer was a clear yes but the means by which this was countered was revealing. He cited cases of increasing management and leadership attention on those products and services that are valued. Clearly this has to be done simultaneously with rectifying where possible poor product and service across the portfolio, but it makes me reflect upon the tactics we apply in public service management. Are we missing a trick? The media is full of challenging stories of very serious public sector failure and the reputational damage that the NHS is suffering is potentially immense, as are sections of local government and other governmental agencies. But within this there seem to be few issues that lead to reputational harm to the Fire and Rescue Services – although I do not wish to tempt fate here!

So, should we explore this transferability of positive product and service a little more closely? My product engineer friend said that lessons could be learned in how these high value products are developed – in certain cases the positive impact of the product was achieved through a ‘less is more’ approach. Consumer behaviour can be positively impacted on by taking out unnecessary or unappreciated elements of a product or service; this is perhaps counterintuitive but is now an established mechanism for commercial organisations. The giving of more or adding more leads to a rapid acceleration of wants and needs but positively promoting the efficiency of a product that closely matches the expectation of the consumer adds value.

It would appear that within the highly tuned commercial mindset the notion of meeting the needs of the consumer is not always about the surprise and delight extras that are offered, but rather exists within the precise tailoring of need to product – even if somewhat perversely it may cost the provider more to take things out than to put additional things in.

What seems to be key here is the amount of attention that is paid to understanding what you do well whilst at the same time seeking address what you may not do so well. This is a principle that is commonly adopted in commerce – it is drawn from the theoretical perspective of ‘appreciative enquiry’ – seeking to understand what is positive and then taking active steps to deploy the factors that lead to success. There is an extensive literature on the subject that rarely seems to have an airing in public management circles, but perhaps this is something that we could learn from other sectors.

The key point here seems to be the accepted dimension of the transferability of reputations, both positive and negative, and the need for commercially savvy organisations to pay close attention to the ‘halo’ product and service. If that positive transferability is a reality then we should perhaps pay more attention to where we are succeeding and achieving high reputational advantage, even if the media still wants to pay rightful attention only to those areas where we may deserve a poor reputation. Maybe it could be a case of not seeking to import private and commercial sector savvy to wider public services, but to recruit more fire-fighters into wider public sector jobs.


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.

The balance between electability and visibility

Ian Briggs

Much has been made of the challenge of actually getting people to vote. The November 2012 Police and Crime Commissioners elections had a pretty dire turnout and there may be some particular issues with regard to that election; but the May 1013 local elections are somewhat different. The three major parties are turning their attention to the next general election and on the back of the Eastleigh By-election the UKIP vote is attracting some attention.

But beneath all of this we need to look more closely at some of the basics of campaigning. Political parties are not swimming with cash at the moment – resources are limited and if the truth be told nearly all parties are short of volunteers to support local campaigns.

Some recent research suggests that over 85% of the UK population have some form of internet connectivity – this of course does mean to say that all are effective users of web based communications. Can the political parties rely more on web based media, social media and electronic campaigning?

In conversations in social settings and when travelling to and from work, it is not that people are wholly disinterested, but rather it is that they say they have few opportunities to actually see the whites of the eyes of the candidates. In more concentrated urban areas it might be possible to do more door to door work but the cost and the time involved to go door knocking in dispersed population areas is a big issue for many candidates – especially as this week’s election is for mainly upper tier councils that cover significant geographical localities. This assumes that all candidates are sound of wind and limb.

A recent conversation with one candidate – a 76 year old widow – revealed that she has little financial support from her party and finds getting about a challenge. Should this in any way detract from her worthiness to stand, her ability to engage in local political and community activity? The answer has to be no, if we believe in local democracy, yet her visibility to those who she is wishing to represent is in marked contrast to the early 40s male candidate who has employer support to stand and whose political career may even enhance his professional career. He also has extensive skills to use web based and social media and can easily find the time to go from door to door in dispersed rural communities to actually talk to local people. He accepts that for many – but not all – it is the policies that he is promoting that are attractive to the electorate and not his shiny German car and sharp cut suit.

If the many who do not have strong political allegiance walk into the polls willing to vote (assuming they have the time and motivation to do so), are they more likely to offer their vote to the individual who has actually taken the time to talk to them on their doorstep? If your telephone has rung and you have been asked if you are going to vote and if so for whom, might it be the one who stood on your doorstep and engaged you in conversation? Do we think enough in the lead up to elections about who are selected to be local candidates and whether there are any inherent inequalities in the way that candidates are selected?

It might just be that sometimes the best candidates, irrespective of their party, might be the better ones to have irrespective of their politics.


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.

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.

To what extent is it reasonable to profit from the public purse?

Ian Briggs

By 1830 the East India Company had grown in size and influence to be a government in all but name. It had control over a population that was at the time ten times greater than that covered by the British Crown and amounted in economic terms to over one third of the then British economy. The power of the company was such that it has led to a deep seated suspicion of the profit motive in the private sector and individuals that has remained in national and local government ever since – whichever political party has been in control.

By the end of the first decade of the twenty first century concern over public expenditure and a fear that ‘our’ money is not being spent with our interests at heart remains. The thousands of FOI requests now received by governmental organisations from both individuals and organised groups such as the Taxpayers’ Alliance may seem like an unreasonable challenge to the primacy of those who are our elected representatives and their agents. Yet, as seemingly no stone is being unturned in the search to lift the UK economy from recession, the question remains: what is reasonable profit to make from public sector activity?

The government is increasingly convinced that contracting with commercial and voluntary providers with payment by results (PBR) is a mechanism to ensure that positive social outcomes are achieved through stimulating the motivation to succeed. This has now extended to the Probation Service where providers will increase their revenue through meeting or exceeding performance targets. While it is clear the new innovative approaches such as this needs to be tried, what is unclear in this process is the means by which we decide whether the targets have been achieved or not, who has the power to decide, and what access to information they have.

The nature of contracts between governments and commercial providers can be said to be at best murky and if history is a good teacher then we should remain sceptical of the means by which performance is judged. To evidence this we have to look at the alternative method – that is where there are penalties within contracts that limit profitability to a commercial provider. For any regular rail traveller this game is all too readily apparent. Careful management of standing time at stations – often for what are termed operational reasons – can be seen as a means of ensuring that there is conformity with published performance expectations. However, for one regular journey I take, if the train were to leave a station at its published time it would have covered the distance from its last stop in a time that would mean speeds far in excess of that permitted for the line. Such quirks in the timetable exist to ensure that this train is never late at its destination and thus distorting the annually published performance report.

So if creative methods are employed to circumvent disincentives that detract from profitability, should we be equally sceptical of achieving positive results with a profit incentive that will always work in the public interest? In the same way that disincentives could have issues within power imbalances and transparency in contracting, so might profit maximisation incentives. No matter how robust a contact is, it will always bring into conflict differing interests and have certain power imbalances built in. Undoubtedly what the East India Company achieved was as much in the interests of the British Government of the time as it was in the interests of those who invested in it, but if we are to offer increased potential profitability to commercial interests through PBR mechanisms we have to be ready to have robust and open debate as to how those payments are justified.

For the Probation Service, social outcomes are at the very centre of its purpose – reducing recidivism is crucial to society but performance contracting is complex. We should perhaps remember the experience of the East India Company, becoming such a monster power at the same time that nearly all Transportation to the Colonies was undertaken on behalf of Government by private contractors. Those very contractors were well rewarded but once out of sight of land they behaved in a fashion that was more about maximising their income than meeting the contractual need established by Government. This was exemplified by the selling off of unused victuals for the journey to increase income – for them the answer was easy – starve the convicts!

So – to what extent is it reasonable to profit from the public purse? And are we putting in place a robust enough mechanism to ensure the interests of civil society are maintained?


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.