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Four Lessons in Leadership

Posted: 24/04/17, Author: Rob Greig

When the going gets tough, the tough get going - according to (depending on your preference) JFK’s father Joe Kennedy or the dreadful 1985 hit song by Billy Ocean. Right now, times are tough in public services... 

Four Lessons in Leadership

If we are to get through the current cuts, resultant challenges and lack of priority being given to social policy, then we really do need effective, creative and values driven leadership. (Just to be clear, those adjectives are what I think defines tough leadership –as opposed to tough meaning domineering, macho-management).

In this context, an evaluation just published by NDTi of a leadership programme for SEND leaders/managers makes interesting reading. The programme, delivered by NDTi for the Department for Education, has just completed its second year (with the third just open for applications). Each year, 40 SEND leaders have come together to develop and explore their own leadership potential across five, two day residential modules. What they have told us, and each other, represents important learning for policy leaders and decision makers everywhere. Amongst the many findings in the evaluation, these four stood out for me:

Firstly, the realisation that work pressures cause leaders to focus almost exclusively on day-to-day management and not on leadership.  Dealing with those day-to-day challenges is clearly important, but when compliance with short-term deliverables becomes all-consuming, it drives out the personal capacity to engage with the true functions of leadership (see below).

It is those leadership focused types of activity that enable leaders to deal with substantial change and take services, and thus people’s life outcomes, in a positive direction.  As one participant said to us:

“I hadn’t realised how much the requirement to meet monitoring requirements had taken over what I did. I’d stopped being creative because of the fear of not meeting basic standards”

Secondly, people need time out from the workplace and those day to day pressures to think, share experiences with others facing similar challenges and develop fresh approaches and solutions. Public services have so developed a culture that expects managers to be demonstrably filling every minute of the working day (and beyond), that time for creativity has all but disappeared for most people. Even training opportunities are generally experienced as an exercise in telling people how to do things properly.

“It’s really important to have the opportunity and time to reflect on what is happening, you have so little of that in a local authority”

Thirdly, the issue of personal resilience in difficult times came through as a major challenge facing public sector leaders. The increasing pressures to deliver more with less resources, allied to people’s strong sense of wanting to nonetheless achieve good outcomes for people who used services, risked creating a toxic mix that affected individuals in personal ways. Alongside the creation of space to share issues with their peers, the tools and techniques the programme shared for staying strong and looking after oneself were amongst the most valued parts of the programme.

“I hadn’t expected it, but I have gained resilience. It really helped me in my role to be resilient as a leader, which has helped me to encourage others to develop their resilience. It enabled me to cope with some extremely challenging pressures”

Finally, the very clear message that the most important thing for leaders is to be true to their personal values and remember why they came into the public sector in the first place. The rediscovery for many people that being public servants meant being servants of the public, rather than of the system that employs them, was visibly liberating to many and sent them back to the workplace with renewed energy and enthusiasm.

“It’s about doing what is right, not what is easy”

“There wasn’t a day when I didn’t learn something new that helped to re-centre the child and family at the heart of the process. You become so systems ingrained, so around compliance and process, it’s about making sure we don’t lose sight of the child at the centre of the process”.

From this, four key messages shine through for national policy makers and senior managers;

  • Reduce the burden of targets and measuring deliverables. These sap leaders’ energy and attention away from instigating the kind of creative change that has a long-term positive impact.
  • Do not fill people’s diaries to the brim. Create and allow space for thinking and learning, away from the workplace, as this is where much innovative thinking and problem solving will take place.
  • Help and support managers and leaders to look after themselves and ensure that the work environments and cultures you create are positive, not punitive places to be.
  • To quote Gladstone, “Nothing that is morally wrong can be politically right”. Give leaders the ability and capacity to live their values through their work – it will result in them delivering so much more.

Central to all of this is the recognition that, even for experienced public sector leaders, taking time out for personal development creates benefits not just that individual, but also for the organisation and thus the people who use the resultant services:

“Probably the best investment of 10 days of my working life with far-reaching benefits for myself, the services and staff that I manage and ultimately the children and families that we work with”

Rob Greig is the Chief Executive at the National Development Team for Inclusion (NDTi)

NDTi is an organisation that promotes equal and inclusive lives for people in their communities, particularly where ageing or disability are issues

Rob Greig's blog is a personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the views of the NDTi.