23rd September 2016
Leadership across silos
Everyone has leadership potential, and Graeme McDonald, Director of Solace, highlights some of the ways in which it can be developed.
(This article was originally published in Government Business)
What makes a great leader? There has often been a debate about the key traits that a good leader should have: knowledge, authenticity, drive, empathy, and even heroism for some.
We will have all experienced attempts at heroic styles of leadership – and while a hero may, on occasions, seem attractive – effective and sustainable leadership is less simplistic. The heroism of ‘great man theory’ is the earliest and perhaps most extreme example of trait leadership theory – that effective leaders share common personality characteristics, qualities that are innate and that leaders are therefore born and not made.
Some individual traits are of course helpful, but leadership is far more complex and not merely a gift. Heroes might have short-term benefits, but they are rarely contagious and quickly lose impact.
Whatever an individual’s personal characteristics, behaviour preferences or the organisational culture within which you operate, everyone’s leadership potential can be developed.
For example, leadership behaviours, such as directive, consultative or consensual approaches, have differing advantages and disadvantages which are suited to particular circumstances. While we may have a preference for a particular blend of approaches, we can be taught to adopt each style when the situation best suits.
Significant attempts have been made to improve leadership in local government over the last decades, especially in helping managers and politicians to work together, and this has produced results. Public service leadership is itself unique since it operates at the managerial and political interface but we have learned to understand what works.
While progress has been made there should be no debate that leadership can’t always be improved; or that, in the context of local government, it needs more investment. Austerity, in both budgets and mindset, has meant investment has stalled at a time when it is most needed.
Local public services are now in the foothills of even more dramatic change. Re-thinking how we achieve the essential outcomes the public needs has never been more important.
Leadership at all levels needs to change. Our society, technology, and essential business model is being disrupted. We no longer view challenges in a linear way, resolved through the command of hierarchies. Our communities are increasingly complex, operating through networks, behaving as systems. This requires leaders to be less focused on organisations and more on people, being comfortable with ambiguity and good at collaboration and building trust.
This challenge is perhaps best demonstrated by the work to reform our health and social care system. The percentage of people over 85 is expected to double over the next twenty years. While this is good news, it also means there are an increasing number of people with complex health needs who often require a combination of both health and social care support.
The financial challenges of people living longer are well documented but the complexity of need also impacts its quality. Where services don’t work well together this can, for example, lead to people being sent to a hospital, or staying in a hospital too long, when it would have been better for them to get care at home. Sometimes important parts of their care can be missing, or they receive the same service twice.
More positively, technological drivers are also impacting on care enabling individuals with long-term care needs to live more independent lives, while the voluntary sector is playing a more integrated role in the provision of support. These trends mean health and social care services are changing fast and are very different from the organisationally focused monoliths we are used to commanding. Leadership is now required across organisational, professional and sector boundaries.
So many of the challenges for government, both local and national, require a similar strategic, system focused approaches. From troubled families to house building, from Brexit to violent extremism, none are solvable through a single, organisational or profession based approach. All require high levels of collaboration and integration to succeed.
Yet the biggest barrier setting places free to bring about change are not technology or resource-based. They stem from people’s existing notions of what is possible. They are behavioural and our style of leadership needs to reflect that.
At Solace we know that personalised approaches to improving leadership work. Action Learning, mentoring, coaching and peer2peer initiatives, for example, have led to many leaders adapting their skills sets and learning how to improve services, faster.
Our flagship programme for aspiring chief executives, ‘Total Leadership’ seeks to create and grow a style of leadership across the whole sector that creates a renewed sense of purpose, which creates hope for all, and where leaders are seen, genuinely, to empower staff, at all levels, to innovate without fear of failure, effectively communicating and collaborating across organisational structures and being held accountable for delivering outcomes.
But we don’t want a ‘sheep-dip’ approach. It has to be adaptable. By working in partnership with the University of Birmingham, we are able to mould experienced professional practice with academic rigour to create a programme steeped in the realities of local government and flexible enough to respond to individuals’ needs and learning styles.
That is one reason why our first cohort included aspiring chief executives not just from all aspects of UK local government, but also leaders from the private sector able to bring an exciting new perspective to the group’s learning experience.
We have also looked beyond the UK and hold one module overseas if a very different political, economic and institutional environment. The module is not designed to seek out world-class practice to be ‘cut and pasted’ back into the UK context. Instead, it is focused on exposing individuals up to alternative methods, challenging their own perceptions and demonstrating that different approaches are possible. It is designed to alter how leaders think about their own circumstances and consider the change. We particularly value this element of the programme as an important mechanism for developing each participant’s growth mindset, despite the pressure from our more traditional austere mindset.
Critically, we have ensured that the whole programme is delivered to a recognised high level of quality, and has created a cadre of incredibly effective and highly marketable leaders.
Perhaps more than ever, leaders need to go further in their demands of what is available to them and what their own needs are. Organisations should invest time and resources in creating a continuous learning culture, and individual leaders embrace the notion that their ‘training’ is never finished.