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.

briggs

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 New Virtual Town Hall

Ian Briggs

They wear tweeds, ride fold up bicycles and have a strange obsession with bandstands, they are often viewed as being at the fringes of society – a minority interest group with a small but powerfully loyal following – they are those who hold dear to their hearts that our 19th century heritage should never be lost. They value the majesty of the Town Hall as a Victorian edifice that spoke of the power of the elected (or in most cases the appointed) in society – have they lost sight of the importance of downsizing public organisations, ensuring that we have a quasi retail approach to services and that we should administer them from anodyne, faceless replicants of a local branch of an insurance company?

Certainly for many within cities and towns the structures that spoke so loudly of the power of the local community served not just to reinforce the civic dignity of the individuals who were called upon to govern but also were – and perhaps still are important icons of civic place and power. True, they are a huge burden to the local purse but at a time of dwindling concern for the council (mindful of a story told a few days ago of a recent election in a ward where only 16 people bothered to vote) we perhaps need a kind of iconography to remind us all that choice and voice at a local level is so profoundly different from the way we have our political views represented at a national level that we need to have some physical representation of the distinctiveness of local democratic place.

All this came out in a conversation with a senior member at this week’s LGA conference here in Birmingham. How he was so troubled by the ‘Moulton fold up bike brigade’ (MFBB) who were repeatedly making his life such a misery with their expertise in the preservation of the civic heritage and their near obsessive persistence that large amounts of expenditure must be made to keep the Town Hall in the condition that our forefathers wished it to be in irrespective of the impact upon other services that he was genuinely afraid for his seat!  However, if we cannot afford the physical iconography can it be replaced with a virtual one? This became an interesting question – opportunities offered by social networking when exploited with care and sensitivity could perhaps replace or compound the iconography of the traditional approach to ‘civicness’? As we are developing our understanding of the community leadership role of councillors should we be thinking more about the overall impact of placing the locally elected in a virtual space as well as a physical space? These are skills that councillors are now just beginning to develop – they understand that their role extends beyond the importance of effective problem centred decision making to being the custodian of the local narrative. In the past the narrative has for many places been the Town Hall representing the power of civic dignity and profound distinctiveness of place. The contemporary narrative is one of connectedness, blending historical tradition with the requirement to maintain and better local conditions so the ‘MFBB’ of the future will look upon our ipads, tweets and blogs as worthy of preservation as much as the Victorian edifices are valued by some today. Watch out – it will happen.

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.

A ‘no’ vote for city mayors does not have to shut down discussion on how local political leadership can be strengthened

Dr. Karin Bottom

Last week, ten English cities voted on whether  to alter the dynamics of leadership in their authorities and replace the current leader and cabinet formula with that of elected mayor, deputy and cabinet.  The rejection was almost unanimous, only Bristol registered a yes vote – but with a majority of less than seven per cent – and more than 60% of voters in Coventry, Leeds, Newcastle, Sheffield and Wakefield   prioritised the status quo above change.   To some this outcome was a surprise, yet  polls prior to the referenda were inconclusive at best and taken in conjunction with the uncertainty surrounding elected mayors, it is hardly surprising that the majority of the electorate chose to stay at home or vote no, average turnout being recorded at a particularly  low 32 per cent.

With a focus on what the office of mayor could do to regenerate cities  and enhance local democracy,  ‘yes’ campaigns were beset with problems from the  start, not least for the reason that pre election, the role of the elected mayor was to be broadly similar to that of council leader: specifics were to be negotiated after taking office and worryingly for some, a substantial amount of the role’s leverage would be the product of personality and an ability to maximise what are often termed as ‘soft’  powers.  Compounding these factors, the office’s confinement to cities – as opposed to regions – suggested that capacity for real change was somewhat more limited than proponents suggested.

Analysis in the aftermath of the referenda suggests that a number of factors contributed to the ‘no’ votes but it  is clear that the overriding sentiments within the electorate were uncertainty and confusion.  Voters were unsure about what they were being asked to endorse or reject and some argue that this explains why the   ‘no’ campaigns were particularly successful at tapping into and harnessing public sentiment.  Taken in the context of austerity, ongoing public service cuts and a generalised dissatisfaction with the political class, it is easy to speculate and suggest that the electorate was unenthusiastic about electing more politicians, especially when the nature of the role was unclear and guidelines for removing poorly performing mayors were minimal to say the very least: to many the office seemed nothing other than a risky and unnecessary expense.

Yet, the results on May 3rd should not shut down discussion on local political leadership. The mayoral model may have been rejected but the issue has not gone away; arguments for stronger more visible city leadership persist and the government has made it clear that it now sees the move towards elected mayors as incremental, cumulative and progressive: in this sense the debate continues.  Yet, now it might be useful to shift the focus somewhat and think about how leadership can be nurtured and maximised in the 339 non mayoral authorities in England because there is nothing to suggest that the qualities which comprise strong leadership sit only within the purview of  an elected mayor.  While  Joe Anderson and Ian Stewart take up their new mayoral posts  in Liverpool and Salford, they do so alongside 124 other English authorities which also underwent some form of political reconfiguration last week: it will be interesting to see  whether  the issues which catalysed the mayoral referenda will impact on future leadership dynamics in those local  authorities.

Karin Bottom is Lecturer in British Politics and Research Methods at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham.  Her core research areas comprise parties (particularly small and the BNP), party systems and party theory.  She is particularly interested in concepts of relevance and how national level theories can be utilised at the sub-national level.

Have public sector leadership programmes failed so badly?

From the late 1980’s a new sub industry emerged in the UK public sector, mass sector wide leadership development programmes. The Health sector was well and truly into this game by this time with huge programmes developing future leaders and the local government sector followed swiftly behind. The very best of these programmes were based upon the assumption that investment was needed to ensure a steady supply of fit for purpose leaders and good, imaginative national programmes attracted an interesting cadre of supporters and participants, some who signed up were clearly ambitious and needed successful participation in these programmes on their CV’s to be even considered for the next job up the organisational scale, others were, on reflection pushed on these programmes to ‘cure’ them of old habits or wake them up to rapidly changing circumstances.

Did they work? Well the evidence is mixed but some who participated on these programmes are now in the top jobs and others have sunk without trace. But was the programme itself a key determinant of success? Perhaps they were destined to have sharp inclines on their career trajectories anyway and the programme was at best incidental in helping them get there. But in a world where every last penny is squeezed out of budgets to fund the front line services and the best development on offer now which incidentally is free (just browsing the net?) as the remaining option means we might be missing a trick? The research evidence on how people get into top jobs is a bit hazy – the best we can glean from it is twofold – getting early experience of project based corporate working and that past performance (whilst not always the most reliable predictor) remains as the best predictor of future performance. There have also been a few interesting hiccoughs upon the way – the National College for School Leadership was a brave if not brazen attempt to demonstrate that professional classroom competence was just not enough to lead a complex entity such as a school – even if they seem to have succumbed to the magnetic pull back into professionalism as opposed to true leadership – and the National Graduate Programme for Local Government has had a bit of a stop/start journey to where it is today.

But now, as we are hollowing out many of our public sector organisations – senior strategic staff are doing the administrative work because all the expensive administrators and middle managers have been made redundant we need to find a way of bringing these hungry, ambitious and talented people out of their shells and help them find ways of transforming our public bodies. Doing it by ‘browsing the net’ will not work. Leadership development is about carefully planned and facilitated constructive socialisation – it is not about reading and knowing more about leadership theory (as interesting as that is anyway) but unless we can find the development opportunities, at the right cost, in the right place and at the right time we are running the risk of facing all the same problems we were dealing with a quarter of a century ago.

The Centre for Leadership at the University of Birmingham (CLUB)  is starting to open up this debate once again – can we find a way to rethink leadership development and inspire, not ignore those who are on the steep career trajectories? We think there is a way – keep watching this space. Leadership development cannot be done without some investment in time and energy as well as a modest financial contribution. We need to bring those people who are genuinely striving to become better leaders together, they need to spark off each other, test out their ideas and clarify how they impact upon those they are there to lead. As someone once said “Leadership – it’s a contact sport and not a virtual reality”

 

Ian Briggs - Inlogov

Ian Briggs (Senior Fellow)
Research interests lie in The development of effective leaders, leadership assessment and the identification of potential; Performance coaching, organisational development and large scale leadership development interventions; Organisational change and the establishment of shared service provision.