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Innovation Explored: How to lead under pressure 

April 4, 2024  

We brought together people from councils across our peer-learning network for an Innovation Exchange looking at how to lead under pressure. In this Innovation Explored we reflect on the key learning and insights shared by participants in the session.  

The session centred on the kind of leadership skills needed in councils today – both for senior leaders and managers as well as how to more broadly foster these skills across the council workforce. Participants focused on the adaptive, responsive and resilient leadership needed in the context of big policy challenges and constrained resources. The group reflected on the need for leadership underpinned by humility, an awareness of not having all the answers and a commitment to work in different ways with staff, partners and communities. 

During the session participants particularly focused on three key challenges: 

  • Personal challenge – becoming comfortable with being an adaptive and resilient leader in the face of significant pressure. 
  • Structural challenge – bringing your team/organisation along with you and working within the reality of existing processes and structures.  
  • Skills challenge – identifying the different skills and capabilities you and your team need in order to foster this new kind of leadership.  

Here are seven practical insights from the session: 

  1. Articulate a clear vision and strategic direction – this is particularly important for senior leaders in terms of connecting leadership to the vision for the council and both articulating and modelling the culture, values and behaviours that underpin this.  
  1. Identify the skills and capabilities you need to hone and develop as a leader and within your team – a wide range of skills and capabilities to underpin this new kind of leadership were identified in the session including: active listening, convening and collaboration skills, relational approaches, willingness and confidence to be visible within communities, and commitment to reflective practice.  
  1. Explore the relationship between process and behaviours – even with a focus on responsiveness and adaptiveness, clear processes are still essential. It’s important to consider how processes interact with and shape culture and behaviours and where there are opportunities to develop these in parallel with each other.  
  1. Foster a culture of innovation – an adaptive and resilient council needs to build the capability across teams to be agile, to try out new approaches and ways of working and to evaluate and learn from this. Leaders need to both encourage a culture which is permissive to these ways of working and shift power in ways that enable staff to adopt these practices.  
  1. Pay attention to your own personal resilience – at all stages of your own leadership development it’s important to invest in and build your personal resilience. This could involve creating space for yourself (e.g. for reflection or creative thinking) even when it feels hard to find time in your diary, learning to say ‘no’ when needed, and developing your confidence around managing risk.  
  1. Understand capacity and resilience within your own team – it’s important to regularly check-in with team members so you have a clear sense of where people are in terms of their own resilience and also where capacity is in the team. This can help you to identify where there might be the ability to draw on reserves in the team when faced with a particular challenge or opportunity. Alongside this, make sure your team have time to recover from periods of intensity – making use of the quieter times! 
  1. Identify practical ways to create the conditions for others to lead – simple ways to achieve this might be through sharing resources, inspiration and ideas with other senior leaders you work with. You might support your teams through ring-fencing or safeguarding time to develop specific skills, creating intentional space for reflective practice and opportunities to think about leadership in the context of day-to-day practical work.  

The Innovation Series

Innovation Exchanges give participants from our member councils a space to step away from day-to-day activities and engage with peers from across the country. Each session addresses a big challenge or opportunity facing councils and their communities. Sessions are peer-led and practically-focused, so participants come away insights, ideas and learning to share with their teams.

Innovation Explored series feature a write-up of the core points from the Innovation Exchange, alongside practical learning from councils and other experts pioneering new approaches to tackling today’s biggest challenges. Each Innovation Explored also shares a roundup of relevant resources from the sector and beyond.

April 4, 2024
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