Radical Leadership: how to lead the public sector in the permacrisis

February 7, 2024  

It’s tough being a leader in the public sector these days. Often the role feels like little more than a fraught navigation between the rock of shrinking resources and the hard place of rising demand. What makes it even tougher is the dawning realisation that this is not a temporary blip but a new normal: the prospect of a return to an era of buoyant economic growth and adequate funding for public services feels like a fading pipe dream.

The public sector is not alone in this, of course. The world as a whole has entered a period some now describe as a ‘permacrisis’ characterised by economic volatility, political polarisation, growing global tensions and environmental deterioration. Many established organisations and their leaders are finding the world an increasingly fraught and challenging place.

But current models of leadership have hardly begun to grapple with this new era in human affairs. The result is frameworks and principles that are too abstract, out of date and sometimes just too glib. As a result, a full understanding of what it means to be an effective public sector leader in the permacrisis has yet to emerge.

New Local and a group of local government chief executives and executive directors (from New Local’s peer-learning network) have set about remedying this by coming together to think openly and honestly about the challenge. We call it the Radical Leaders Connector.

Inspired by an opening presentation from Catherine Howe, Chief Executive of Adur and Worthing Council, the first two meetings have tentatively identified four major changes in a radical leader’s focus. These changes are not total shifts away from a pre-permacrisis model. Many of the qualities of existing leadership models remain valid but only if they are augmented by new capabilities. How exactly that augmentation happens without overloading leaders with unrealistic expectations is something to be explored further. But for now, we are sharing these initial ideas in the hope it will generate debate that will help further refinement of the radical leadership approach.

Resilience as well as Efficiency

Improving productivity will always be important for any public sector body but the idea of the leader as the chief driver of greater efficiency was seen by the group as an idea that had reached its expiry date. After over a decade of constant cuts and pressure to do more with less, this focus was now seen as largely counter-productive. It makes the leader more reactive than proactive, a source of workforce alienation and ultimately the instigator of poorer services. The most telling insight is that an over-emphasis on efficiency has only led to a processing mentality in public workforces (see, for example, the constant reduction in the time care-workers get to spend with those they care for) which means people getting worse care, which leads to higher demand, putting ever greater pressure on services. Ironically, the leader who focuses solely on driving efficiency ultimately makes their organisation less efficient.

The permacrisis demands a different focus: resilience. This stands to reason. In an era of multiple crises, the leader needs to ensure that their organisations, their colleagues, the wider communities they serve and, of course, themselves have the necessary characteristics to withstand the most unexpected and challenging eventualities.

Resilience is a complex, multi-faceted characteristic that requires far more investigation to understand fully. It is telling that there is no end of analysis exploring efficiency while resilience remains something of a niche concern. However, we know from what work has been done on the subject that self-efficacy, strong personal connections and a proactive mindset are key factors underpinning resilient people, organisations and communities. The radical leader fit for the permacrisis will clearly need to both model and enable such characteristics so that they permeate the culture and the structures of their organisations and wider communities, while also encouraging a change mindset to enable that wider shift to resilience.

Community as well as Institution

Inevitably, leaders tend to focus on the institution they lead, concentrating on matters of financial health, organisational strategy and workforce development. These concerns are always going to remain important but now the radical leader needs to incorporate more vigorously the world beyond the institution including other public sector bodies, the voluntary sector, the private sector, wider national and international partners and, most importantly, local residents and their many, overlapping formal and informal communities.

The reason is straightforward: at a time of highly constrained resources, public sector institutions can’t hope to respond to the serious challenges of the permacrisis without augmenting those resources with the assets, energy and skills that exist outside the institution. Every formidable issue an area now faces – growing health inequalities, labour market uncertainties, extreme weather, political extremism to name a few – has to be treated as a challenge to the whole community, not just the public sector.

There is thus an obligation on the radical leader to model this outward-facing mindset. Ideally, a radical leader would spend as much time out in the community as they do in the office. They should be the partnership builder-in-chief, identifying, understanding and connecting with the individuals, organisations, places that can work with their institution to meet the big challenges. They should also be comfortable with the infinitely more messy and unbounded nature of community compared to the institution. And they should have a plan to make sure that this community powered outlook spreads throughout their workforce and comes to define what it means to be an employee.

Compassion as well as Decisiveness

The decisive leader who knows exactly what they want and how an organisation should respond is a common ideal that permeates not just the literature on leadership and organisation but also our wider culture. However, in the permacrisis, this heroic, rather macho ideal can prove problematic. The unpredictable and increasingly unusual events of our time mean that it is often very difficult to know the precisely correct course of action, and leaders who pretend they do may well be fooling themselves as well as their colleagues. They may also be perpetuating a culture of rigidity and certainty within their organisation when the rapidly changing nature of a crisis requires flexibility and adaptability.

Decisions, of course, have to be taken and that burden will always ultimately lie with the leader but these decisions should happen in a context that is honest about the difficulty of being certain about the rightness of any response and the fallibility, even the vulnerability, of the leader.

This can be understood as a shift that values compassion alongside decisiveness. Compassion from the leader towards colleagues that allows them to be honest about their uncertainties and anxieties at times of growing pressure. While also encouraging colleagues to be similarly compassionate thus allowing the leader to be equally honest. An approach that is close to Kim Scott’s idea of radical candour: a combination of necessary honesty and authentic empathy.

Compassion can also help nurture the greater resilience described above. It can create the sort of supportive workplace culture that sustains employees through tough times while also focusing minds on providing the very best human and holistic care for residents and service users at a time of growing pressure on wider society.

The imperative for radical leaders, therefore, is to model compassion themselves and to encourage its osmosis throughout the organisations and systems of which they are a part.

Mobilisation as well as Management

Conventionally, organisational leaders are regarded as the uber-manager: the final operational decision-maker, the line manager of the senior leadership team, the trouble-shooter of last resort. The most prized qualities in that role are institutional knowledge, analytical ability, good judgement and problem-solving skills.

But the radical leader dealing with the permacrisis needs another set of skills: the ability to mobilise. If the untapped assets of communities are to be deployed to meet formidable challenges, the public sector leader needs to know how to inspire, connect and activate alongside understanding how service design, digital change and organisational development play into these objectives. In short, they must become more the leader of a dynamic movement and less the manager of a static institution.

This requires a very new skill set that includes the capability to create compelling narratives and eye-catching messages, convening and uniting disparate interests, and empowering others to work independently but collaboratively for positive change.

If this all sounds somewhat intimidating, that’s because it is. Just as our world is going through profound changes, so the public sector and its leaders are going to have to do the same. Transitions can be difficult: we cling to the old not just because it is what we are used to but also because it is easier. But such inertia effectively means embracing public sector decline or worse. By contrast, facing up honestly and courageously to the permacrisis opens up the possibility that the core principles of public service can be saved for future generations. With that approach we might also come to see that the permacrisis is not just a time of challenge but also one of opportunity with its inherent volatility opening up the space for new thinking and new practices as yet undiscovered.

Many thanks to all those who participated in the first two workshops of our Radical Leaders Connector series and helped shape this article. They are listed below. Further workshops exploring each of the four shifts in more detail with new articles sharing our deliberations are planned.

New Local is planning an in-person event focused on building the ‘radical leader’ for tomorrow’s public services. If you want to be the first to know about this, email us.

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