5 reasons why we need a new female leadership paradigm for the public sector

Catherine Mangan

As it’s International Women’s Day, I’m reflecting on the fabulous women I have the privilege to work with as part of the national leadership programmes we convene. One recurring question I’m asked by women (and one that I often ask myself) is whether they ‘fit’ the prevailing paradigm of a leader in the public sector. They have often been told (typically by male colleagues) that they need to act more like a leader – be more assertive, more confident, and speak up more in meetings – in other words, told to act more like current male role models.

This seems to me an outdated view of leadership, which is no longer fit for the complex world of public service. And on International Women’s Day I’m feeling empowered and provocative and (putting aside for the moment the debate about whether male and female styles of leadership map onto being men and women) I’m going to suggest that we need a new, more female paradigm of leadership for public services.

There are (at least) 5 reasons why:

  1. Female leaders, in my experience, not only talk to their staff, and residents, but they actively listen to them. They gather ideas and opinions from others, are genuinely interested in what different people have to say, and create a better solution from working with others. They are also prepared to change their minds. This is not a weakness, but a strength.
  2. They say ‘Come with me’ rather than ‘Do what I tell you’. They take time to explain to people why changes are necessary and offer encouragement and sense making. This is not a lack of direction, but an approach which recognises that change is difficult for people.
  3. They don’t view their role as a competition with other leaders. Rather, they have a level of humility that helps them to understand that it’s not about who can take the credit for the new initiative, it’s about whether it makes life better for their residents. This is not a sign of selling out, or not protecting the interests of your organisation. It’s effective systems leadership.
  4. They don’t think that they know the answer to everything. They recognise the complexity of the world in which they are working and understand that they can’t do everything on their own and need to collaborate with others rather than shying away from revealing a lack of knowledge. Asking others to help come up with potential solutions is the only way to tackle the wicked issues public services deal with.
  5. They have self-doubt about their abilities. This means they ask for feedback, they check out the impact of their approach, and are reflective practitioners who learn from their own practice.

So I say to all those women who think they don’t fit the mould of a leader – don’t try and shape yourself to fit an outdated mould – let’s re-shape the leadership paradigm so it looks a lot more like us.

mangan-catherineCatherine Mangan is Director of INLOGOV, co-convenes the Win Win network at the University of Birmingham, and facilitates national leadership programmes including Total Leadership, Aspiring Directors of Public Health and the National Graduate Development Programme

Being able to say ‘I’m sorry’ is a sign of strength – not of weakness

Catherine Staite, Director of INLOGOV

Yesterday was a remarkable day in many ways. We heard a passionate but thoughtful debate in the House of Commons.  There wasn’t much of the usual ‘yah boo’ and name calling. Some very good speeches, including by Margaret Becket and Hilary Benn reminded us of the power of argument.  They also reminded me that, while there is so much to criticize in the way this country is led, I am lucky to live in a democracy where a Prime Minister cannot rely on positional power but who needs to persuade MPs both of the moral and strategic arguments for the things he wants to do. In spite of the common perception of MPs as powerless lobby fodder, it was clear yesterday that many were demonstrably acting according to their consciences, led by their reason. In many ways it was a good day for democracy, respect for differing opinions and the exercise of collective leadership.

In other ways yesterday demonstrated some of the ways in which passion, conscience and reason can be subverted to justify the worst possible behaviour.  The problem of bullying, of all sorts of people, in all walks of life, has become part of our understanding of how the world works. Perhaps the word ‘bully’ has lost some of its power because we have applied it so often to such a wide range of behaviours.  Maybe we should move away from the generic to the specific and talk about the terrible psychological damage done by ‘insults’, ‘assaults’ and ‘attacks’.  The old saying ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me’ is the opposite of the truth. Sometimes words hurt because they exclude – ‘you aren’t one of us’, they vilify – ‘you are one of them’ or they threaten – damage to reputations and careers.

We often look to leaders to set standards, to model good behaviour and hold bullies to account. It’s hard for them to do that when they indulge in that sort of behaviour themselves or fail to deal with it in others.  Jeremy Corbyn seems to me to be a gentle, principled man but some of his more extremely left wing colleagues are using his popular support to justify criminal behaviour.  To what extent is this his responsibility?  He is the leader of his party so it’s absolutely his responsibility. Modelling good behaviour is a necessary but not sufficient element of effective  leadership. Action is also required.  If Jeremy Corbyn’s sins are of omission, David Cameron’s are definitely of commission. His words about ‘terrorist sympathisers’ makes him a bully because he was seeking both to exclude and to vilify.  We’d find that behaviour reprehensible in a child in the the playground and it is utterly unacceptable in the holder of the highest political office.

However, leaders are only human. Everyone makes mistakes under pressure, even leaders.  Its what they do then that indicates the extent to which they are really good leaders.  Willingness to admit mistakes and to apologise for them demonstrates self-knowledge and humility and those are very attractive attributes in a leader. If someone says they were wrong, we’ll trust them next time they tell us they really are right. If someone tells us they are sorry when they are in the wrong we’ll trust them next time they say they really are in the right.

Refusal to admit mistakes or to apologise for them undermines our trust in leaders. It also give followers a clear message ‘Look at me…I bullied and I got away with it. You can bully and get away with it too’. Nice work Mr Cameron. You won the vote but you diminished your moral authority. Moral authority is the currency of leadership and you’ve squandered yours in support of a vote you would have won anyway. Will that be remembered long after we’ve finished bombing in Syria?

Catherine Staite

Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

Preparing future leaders: The Total Leadership Programme

Daniel Goodwin – Senior Associate Fellow

The leadership and management challenges faced by local government have never been greater. Budget constraint, population change, and the need to respond to heightened expectations present future leaders with lots to grapple with. People thinking about taking up the top roles in public service will need a solid foundation of thinking and a great support network to turn challenge into opportunity.

The Total Leadership Programme is an exciting new venture which is designed to help senior local government managers prepare themselves for a chief executive role. It’s a partnership between INLOGOV and SOLACE (The Society of Local Government Chief Executives and Senior Managers), which fills a serious gap in provision nationally. It is open not only to directors in councils but also to people at a similar level within private sector firms who work in the public sector and who might be considering such a move too.

The programme will be delivered by a combination of INLOGOV Faculty members and Associates with significant management education development expertise, practicing chief executives and senior politicians, and experts in particular leadership fields.

Participants will develop a deeper understanding of the local government leadership space which will inform their future thinking in the remainder of the programme. They’ll consider how they will personally develop relationships of trust across the whole system locally and also how they might start to develop a national profile as an ambassador for place. The programme will help them feel at ease with ideas of complexity, collaboration, agency and leverage, and be able to use them to develop further learning.

Through an examination of local government in a non-UK context, participants will come away with reflections on the way local leadership happens in a different but comparable system. They will have thought about what we can learn about the way in which challenges are perceived and addressed. They will also have considered whether there are identifiably different strategies and approaches which might have an impact on their future work. In a module on entrepreneurial leadership, participants will gain a deeper appreciation of the perspectives of those they commission and explore what entrepreneurialism means in the local public sector context.

Finally, participants will consider how to create a positive public leadership narrative which helps them to engage with how people to see them as a leader. They will explore how to offer their leadership to people through a narrative that they can relate to. This will include exploring how engagement with digital media changes and shapes that approach.

All of the modules will be informed by the latest thinking on key cross-cutting issues, including community development and participative social media led democracy, demand management, ‘digital by design’ and new organisational forms.

Participants will have an input into the development of the modules through a design day in June and through ongoing discussions and reflection. They’ll also have access to INLOGOV’s distance learning materials and will be encouraged to engage in learning and networking between the modules. And of course they will also be able to learn hugely from each other, the groups will be kept at an optimal size of around 12-15 people to help develop a strong peer learning network.

The deadline for applications to the first cohort is 31st May and the modules start in September. Demand is high and the programme is already two thirds full. Confirmed participants include directors from a wide range of authority types from across the UK.

To find out more follow this link: www.solace.org.uk/tl

Know your local Councillor Photographs - St Albans - May 2008

Daniel Goodwin’s career has mainly been in local government, starting in libraries and cultural services and progressing through policy and corporate services. He is particularly interested in policy into practice issues, largely relating to local leadership and the politics of communities and place, and is a regular contributor to journals, conferences and seminars.

Preaching to the choir: reflections on key leadership skills for local authority chief executives – part 3: courage

Catherine Staite

Leadership is not a sprint – it’s a marathon. You are in it for the long haul and that is why courage is so important.

Maya Angelou argued that courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently and that is certainly evident in the role of chief executive. Not only do you need to keep yourself going through challenging times, you also need to be able to demonstrate courage to your staff and members. If you falter, so will they.

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Don’t make the mistake, though, of thinking that you have to go it alone. True, it can be lonely at the top and you can sometimes feel that you should keep your doubts, fears and frustrations to yourself. That’s a big mistake – and so many leaders make it. You are only human – very clever human, but human nonetheless.

Not only do you need support, you also need someone to tell you when you are wrong. If you isolate yourself in your leadership castle, you could be very wrong without knowing it. There’s a saying that ‘a lawyer who acts for himself has a fool for a client’ and that is just as true of chief executives who only take their own advice. You need a critical friend you can turn to, someone who will help you focus, learn from your mistakes and laugh about the sometimes crazy world that you inhabit.

Some chief executives have really strong relationships with their Leaders and each can be a good critical friend to the other. For others, their Leader is the source of many of their troubles. They definitely need to go elsewhere for support.

You need all your energy to be a strong and courageous leader, so don’t waste energy on what you can’t change. Do let go of the past. Only look back to learn from your mistakes, not to wallow in nostalgia for a misremembered past. Times may seem particularly hard –but then they always do when you are living through them. As Heraclitus said, the only thing that is constant is change. I observe the very different ways that chief executives respond to change, from seeing it as a threat to greeting it as an opportunity. The best at using the prevailing challenges of austerity to make the sort of bold changes that would never have been possible in times of plety.

Focus on building a better future for your Council and the people you all serve. To do that you should keep searching for better ways of doing things. Support your staff to do that now and they’ll carry on doing it when you are no longer there. The more talent you can develop in others, the more support you can draw on now and the better the legacy of your leadership.


Catherine Staite
Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

Preaching to the choir: reflections on key leadership skills for local authority chief executives – part 2: charm

Catherine Staite

If Brian Tracy and Ron Arden are right when they say the deepest craving of human nature is the need to feel valued and valuable. The secret of charm is therefore simple: make others feel important – then charm must be a crucial attribute for leaders.

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Charm is shorthand for a sophisticated set of skills which enable you to make new connections and solve old problems. Charm is about much more than being nice in a superficial way – otherwise known as ‘smarm’. If you don’t have real charm then just be gruff and honest. Everyone will understand. Smarm, on the other hand, will simply breed distrust.

The truly charming have notable skills. They are interested in others. They pay them real attention and give them positive regard – as opposed to the barely controlled irritation demonstrated by some powerful people in their dealings with underlings. Even if they attempt to catch you with a bright idea when you are en route to the toilet, don’t snap – suggest they catch you on the way back, when you can give them your full attention. You need all the bright ideas you can get.

Charming leaders also know how to listen, not just to what the people you lead are saying but what they perhaps feel they can’t say to you. A leader who doesn’t listen won’t have access to all the facts, no-one will tell them the unvarnished truth and they won’t hear when people are trying to tell them they may just be wrong. The failure to listen renders leaders about as effective – and as potentially dangerous – as a blindfolded driver. You may have had experience of a leader who doesn’t listen. Remember how awful that was and don’t case that level of distress to your staff.

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Charming leaders seek to bring people together and that has never been more important for local government. Albert Camus observed that charm is a way of getting the answer ‘yes’ without ever having asked a clear question. You need a lot of people to say ‘yes’ to a lot of things they may not necessarily like if you are going to effect real change.

There is so much good work going on around collaboration for the benefit of the people we all serve but there are still so many terrible instances of people in senior positions who perpetuate old feuds and personalize organizational battles, to the point where there is no way out for anyone. A history of corrosive, destructive pettiness endlessly repeats itself.

I am sometimes obliged to listen to a range of grievances going to back to 1974 and it’s no fun. The petty disputes I observe range from being mere energy vampires to the evidence of utter moral failure. Those disputes are about the past and you have to get beyond them – and encourage your members to do the same. You are leading in the present to build a better future and you’ll need all your energy and charm to do that. That behavior will shape your organizational culture and ripple through external relationships to the point where no-one can articulate or even want to remember why this country doesn’t co-operate with that district or vice versa. That will have an impact across your area and beyond – so your charm is a force for real good.

It’s amazing how pervasive and powerful an influence the chief executive and top team have on the culture of their council. When the people I pass in your corridors are smiling – in spite of all the challenges – I know their leaders have charm and their councils will survive and thrive.

Catherine Staite

Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

Preaching to the choir: reflections on key leadership skills for local authority chief executives – part 1: creativity

Catherine Staite

I have called this blog series ‘preaching to the choir’ as it is dedicated to local authority chief executives and they already know a great deal about leadership. They wouldn’t survive and thrive in their posts if they didn’t.

They already know that heroic leadership is only useful in the case of fire and flood and that leadership of organisations in giving way to leadership of whole systems – which is a whole lot harder. Instead, I’d like to focus on three aspects of leadership which are talked about less often but are absolutely crucial to effective and sustainable leadership, in complex systems and in difficult times. They are: creativity, charm and courage.

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So what is creativity and why do leaders need it so much?

We hear a great deal about the need for change and innovation – which implies creativity. However, so much which is described as innovation is nothing of the sort. Adam Smith introduced us to lean thinking in The Wealth of Nations in 1776. The Hanseatic League demonstrated the benefits of collaboration and shared services in the 17th century. We could and should learn from the past, but too often old ideas are re-labelled and sold on as new, not as a coherent element of a new way of solving problems but as a ‘one size fits all’, ‘but this and all will be well’, single focus solution.

So if creativity isn’t just about endlessly recycling the ideas of previous eras, what is it? Steve Jobs said creativity is just connecting things. How simple, and how true.

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We are subject to constant but superficial change. The ink hasn’t dried on one paradigm before it’s shifted. But we’re in a time of evolution not revolution, no matter how apocalyptic the environment feels at times. Not withstanding the 24/7 networked digital revolution we all still meet in rooms – not cyberspace. Joseph Chamberlain could come back from the dead and find his way round Birmingham City Council. Not only is the décor much as he left it, members and officers are focusing on the successor problems to those that were the focus of his attention. Both he and they are attempting to achieve the same outcomes – better lives for the people of Birmingham.

We really need creativity – not to create a new universe but to unstick the current one. In mental health services in the 1990s we were innovating to create an integrated care system, including diverting mentally disordered offenders from inappropriate custody. The evidence was clear. Early diversion from the criminal justice system and multi-disciplinary support wrapped around the person saved a lot of money for services and a lot of damage for people with severe mental health problems who committed minor offences. 25 years later not much has changed. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because, in spite of the enthusiasm and commitment of the champions of change, episodic creativity and short term collaboration does not penetrate the roots of organizational silos and professional conservatism. As Albert Einstein said, we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.

So what can leaders do to help convert short-term creativity into long-term benefits? According to Albert von Szent-Gyorgy, discovery consists of seeing what everyone has seen and thinking what nobody has thought. Leaders can make the space for creativity as well as bringing people together, allowing time, encouraging risk and forgiving failure. Creativity is often about seeing opportunities to bring together different ideas and new ways of thinking. Leaders can also help to embed new thinking by challenging some of the entrenched interests rather than colluding with those who say that change is ‘too difficult’. As Thomas Edison put it, with admirable brevity, there’s a better way to do it – find one.

Catherine Staite

Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.