We need a fundamentally different approach to public sector leadership
This article first appeared in the LGC briefing.
Leading under pressure needs to become a discipline in itself, argues Adam Lent.
The tragic death of Ruth Perry, the headteacher who killed herself after her school was downgraded by Ofsted, has galvanised opposition to an increasingly discredited school inspection regime. But this is only the most distressing consequence of what has been a decades-long attitude in central government that infantilises and degrades our most senior public servants.
Ever since the 1980s when a “private sector good, public sector bad” mentality began to grip government, there has been a persistent drumbeat of hostile rhetoric and actions from politicians. This has led to the obsession with imposing simplistic national performance targets and ever-tougher inspection regimes. Inevitably, the message has bled into the media and public perceptions, ultimately undermining popular trust not just in leaders but all public servants.
Central government needs to shift rapidly towards a mindset that openly acknowledges public sector leaders as critical to the future success of the country.
There is a growing awareness that this punitive mentality has failed but as the establishment of the Office for Local Government shows, attitudes in Whitehall are finding it hard to move on.
Central government needs to shift rapidly towards a mindset that openly acknowledges public sector leaders as critical to the future success of the country. At a time of spiralling global crises, politicians should make the case that our resilience as a nation relies heavily on having a cadre of valued and confident people leading the services that keep things going during the most trying moments – of which there will undoubtedly be many more.
This does not mean giving up on accountability and the calling out of genuine examples of failing leadership. But it does require a recognition that the state cannot inspect and bully people into being great public sector leaders. Instead, there needs to be a much stronger focus on valuing and supporting. That means gaining a clear understanding of what it takes to lead under pressure and sharing that understanding through peer-learning and continuous development.
Leaders can no longer be seen solely as managers of an institution. Their role now is to head up the mobilisation of the assets and energy of whole communities and systems
Importantly, this has to be underpinned by a plan to buy public sector leaders something that has become a dangerously scarce resource: time. The endlessly mounting operational pressures of running council and other public services corrodes the capacity to reflect on and develop leadership style and skills.
Equally important is the need to build programmes of leadership development around the acknowledgement that conventional approaches to leadership, forged in very different times, no longer work in an era of crisis and shrinking resource. The very notion of leadership will need to be collectively rethought and expanded.
Leaders can no longer be seen solely as managers of an institution. Their role now is to head up the mobilisation of the assets and energy of whole communities and systems to meet the formidable challenges ahead.
In short, leading under pressure needs to become a discipline in itself, one understood and developed not just by senior public servants but by central government as well.
The idea and practice of leading under pressure and mobilising communities will be explored at Stronger Things – the community power event of the year.
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