The biggest deficit - leadership - RSA

The biggest deficit - leadership

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  • Public services
  • Leadership

George Osborne’s autumn statement appears to be is a sophisticated package; written to maximise advantage to the Conservatives with a strong ideological undertow, but also containing a popular top line policy - on stamp duty - that has already commanded cross-party support.

Although, along with just about every other commentator, I don't think the Chancellor can actually deliver the targets of spending reduction he published yesterday, the statement confirms what we already knew: unless we start very soon to see a substantial fiscal dividend from economic growth, public services face many more years of trying to meet growing demands and rising expectations with frozen or falling budgets. Indeed the statement adds an extra year to the austerity horizon meaning major cuts will still be being implemented in the immediate run up to the election after next. Bu already, for local services in particular, the fat has long gone, the flesh has been sliced and the vital organs are starting to fail.

Mr Osborne’s unwillingness to recognise this or to accept any responsibility for how his strategy will impact on public servants and citizens is an abnegation of his responsibility as a public servant, albeit one that will be echoed by other political leaders with no desire to disturb voters with difficult truths. The survival of the public domain relies on a further significant shift of responsibility from the state to the citizen. Political expediency and the failure of the Big Society means no national leader will be inclined to ‘fess up to that before next May. If we need a different order of public leadership in these challenging times we will have to focus elsewhere.

Over recent days I have looked at public service reform from a bewildering number of angles. I attended the first national conference for the Government-funded 'What works centres'. I chaired a Parliamentary roundtable event on design for policy. I also chaired the launch of the Public Service Transformation Challenge Panel report, sponsored by DCLG.

On top of this I was MC of an event to publish the final report of Islington Employment Commission and the keynote speaker at the launch of the Croydon Fairness Commission. Finally, I chaired the second in our series of seminars held in conjunction with the global education services provider Pearson to discuss the idea of efficacy, this time in the context of school improvement.

Normally this would provide material for several blog posts. For while there was value in all these initiatives I have misgivings about each. The general approach of the What Works centres is overly technocratic (which is perhaps inevitable) and lacking a convincing model of change (which is less excusable).

The design for policy approach is fascinating and progressive but can feel overblown given the paucity of powerful examples of impact at scale and that, on closer inspection, design for policy isn’t all that different from the best examples of traditional policy making.

The recommendations of the Public Service Transformation Panel were hard to dispute but the report didn’t really get to grips with why implementing them seems so hard and, anyway, the idea of ‘transformation’ is surely a misnomer for a set of practices – a focus on citizens and more effective inter agency collaboration, for example - which need to be seen not as one-off changes but as a continuous discipline.

It is heartening that local authorities like Islington and Croydon are looking to provide a broader convening role focussed around the needs of citizens. However, in practice (and it is too early to speak for Croydon) I find that councils have rarely thought deeply enough about how to provide a qualitatively different kind of leadership, one that is based on influence and generosity, not control.

And while I continue to be impressed by Pearson’s commitment to ensuring that their products and services improve people’s lives through learning, it is clear that efficacy is a more powerful tool for asking questions than providing definitive answers. (Indeed, Pearson’s growing awareness that efficacy is not about imposing a single ‘one best way’ perspective on complex challenges contrasts with the rather reductive world view of the What Works initiatives.)

As I rushed from initiative to initiative the sense that something fundamental is lacking in them all grew and grew. The length of time since my last post is witness to my inability to put my finger on what that something is. Now I think I may have found it. My colleague Anthony Painter (who leads the RSA’s growing portfolio of work on institutional reform) directed me to a new paper published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. ‘The Dawn of System Leadership’ is by the impressive team of Peter Senge (recently interviewed in the RSA Journal), Hal Hamilton and John Kania.

The article helped me identify that missing ingredient. In short, the need for a different order of leadership, something to which reformers often pay lip service but which I see little sign of being fully appreciated. There are two contrasting problems with a focus on leadership: first is that it reinforces a hierarchical model of change, second that ‘leadership’ is a proxy for an ill-defined bundle of virtues - commitment, wisdom, authority. The value of the Stanford Review paper is that it provides a compelling and concrete account of the components of the kind of leadership needed to solve tough problems; problems like reforming public services in a context of shrinking budgets and rising demands.

Senge et al identify three core capabilities:

• The ability to see the larger system

• An ability to foster reflection and more generative conversation

• A capacity to shift the conversation from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future.

Exhorting a new paradigm is all very well but why might we hope for new leadership? Through their own experience and the many case studies they cite the Stanford authors argue that the hunger for system leadership and the human capacity to provide such leadership is growing. This perspective chimes with the progressive human development theories of figures like Robert Kegan and Ken Wilbur.

The problem is not our receptivity or capacity: it is the organisational forms and norms that put huge barriers in the way of system leadership and, more profoundly, blind us even to its possibility.

Senge et al summarise their argument in one sentence:

The deep changes necessary to accelerate progress against society’s most intractable problems require a unique type of leader – the system leader, a person who catalyses collective leadership.

Although this insight is negatively articulated in the ever growing disdain of citizens towards the political establishment I don’t expect it to be acknowledged anytime soon in the actions and rhetoric of national politics. Yet, without system leadership in our services and localities the next few years will see the public domain hollowed out ever further.

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  • Good use of abnegation. The Chancellor's denial was saddening as it was predictable.

  • Very interesting insight, for further thoughts about systems thinking and how it relates to leadership I suggest you look into Russell Ackoff’s work(s). It makes Senge look like he’s still in his intellectual diapers. Ackoff’s suggested readings are “Redesigning Society” and “Redesigning the Future”. The below video links cover some of the thoughts on the “21st Century Enlightenment” and the question of “What is Right?” The short answer is “Right is anything that increases your competence that doesn’t reduce someone else’s competence; it’s also right if you can increase someone else’s competence without reducing yours, but any reduction in competence is wrong” as noted in the first video. The second video link is part 1 of 3, where Ackoff speaks about systems thinking and leadership in the current world mess. You’ll find the other two parts if interested. Hope you enjoy.


  • Thanks Bill, Matthew, Mike. All good stuff. I am excited that the RSA's experts on organisational change (still a relatively new area for us) and public service reform are now working more closely together. I increasingly feel that any reform strategy that lacks a coherent and comprehensive account of organisational renewal (which calls for system leadership) change is doomed to failure. And, of course, we need to remember the old maxim 'cobblers' children run barefoot' - the RSA should seek to be an exemplar of organisational innovation.

  • Matthew, thanks for an interesting and appealin blog. Do you or the RSA have the intent and capacity to provide this leadership?

    I'm not certain this leadership is "unique" is unfashionable and particular.

    Thanks again,


  • I’ve increasingly felt that the insights of ‘Complexity Leadership’ (aka Generative Leadership, System Leadership etc) offer a valuable and novel perspective – indeed a whole new way of seeing reality.

    A focus on networks, on creating ecologies of innovation, even on seeing RSA Fellows as a ‘Complex Adaptive System’, feels like a more fruitful way to approach things than the more mechanistic and linear approaches that we’ve all grown up with.

    It’s basically the difference between top-down solutions and co-created solutions spread virally (not just ‘the Power to Create’, but ‘the Power to Co-create’, as I once put it in an RSA staff meeting).

    The research of Kegan, Torbert, Wilber et al is helpful in telling the story of how the action-logics of leaders – and even of whole organisations? – can grow along a trajectory from the more linear and deterministic action-logics to the more complex and non-linear, where leaders (slowly!) become more at ease with ambiguity and vulnerability (also with slowing down, not having to have all the answers – ‘holding space’ rather than filling space).

    (As you know, it follows perhaps that one way to change the RSA would simply be recruit senior staff who are orientated towards such mutual learning rather than command and control action-logics – action-logics that enjoy networked and systems/complexity approaches. It’s very easy to do, and has made a powerful difference where it’s been tried.)

    Books like ‘The Social Labs Revolution – a new approach to solving our most complex challenges’, and ‘Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership – leveraging nonlinear science to create ecologies of innovation’, the work of Mary Uhl-Bien etc, help show us how these complexity approaches can pan out…

    Complexity leadership would also encourage greater use of ‘Dialogical approaches’ (rather than ‘Diagnostic approaches’) in organisational change, and others, projects – something for the RSA’s Action and Research Centre to think about (I’ve pointed out before that the Cultural Theory experts single out such ‘Dialogical’ approaches as ‘Future Search’ as being the most ‘Clumsy’ – ie most likely to honour all perspectives, and successfully embed and sustain themselves. Though that approach takes 2 or 3 days. Perhaps the use of ‘Liberating Structures’ in our everyday meetings would be similarly powerful? http://www.liberatingstructure... ).

    And here’s another major argument in favour of the effectiveness of such a Dialogical approaches: when Bosch evaluated 2,000 of their large group interventions (eg things like Future Search etc) they found that 70-80% of projects that came out of such large group interventions were successful, compared to only 35-40% of projects from traditional approaches.

    Rather tempting! ;-)

    And even the evaluation of RSA projects might evolve significantly – making more use of the emerging approach described in Michael Quinn Patton’s ‘Developmental Evaluation – Applying Complexity Concepts to Enhance Innovation and Use’ – an approach which is particularly aimed at situations where social innovators are bringing about systems change under conditions of complexity. (I’ve seen a number of Fellows getting interested in the Developmental Evaluation approach).

    It’s interesting – though not surprising - to see Senge mentioning the work of Otto Scharmer. His ‘U Process’ of creativity takes into account the more intuitive and emergent aspects of creativity – something that can easily get submerged by the more common analytical/linear approaches. (It would be great to get Nick Udall to speak at the RSA about this aspect of the ‘Power to Create’; his recent book ‘Riding the Creative Rollercoaster – How leaders evoke creativity, productivity and innovation’ is rather wonderful, and could be the challenging blueprint for what the RSA should become, alongside the also wonderful Frederic Laloux book Reinventing Organisations.

    There’s a workshop about one of the key organisational models Laloux highlights – Holacracy – in February: It’s currently being adopted by the $1bn US organisation Zappos, as a way to increase staff creativity and autonomy. Already 80 per cent of Zappos staff no longer have a ‘Manager’!:

    Before leaving the RSA recently I investigating the possibility of two joint projects between the RSA and Nick Udall/The Nowhere Group – one to develop a ‘Creativity curriculum’ for schools in the UK (and globally), and another to put on some ‘Creative Dialogue’ events, offering Fellows and others a deeper opportunity for engagement and creativity.

    I hope they’re both still on the RSA agenda – working with The Nowhere Group would definitely help the RSA to realise ‘the Power to Create’.

    The article also mentions Kegan’s ‘Immunity to Change’ – which certainly proved to be a very powerful and transformative approach, when I did the edX MOOC about it together with a small group of Fellows:

    One Fellow – Kate Hammer – said that it: “made Fellowship tangible and meaningful, more so than any other RSA encounter I’ve had”.

    I think that’s enough from me…

    Matthew M

    PS Can the RSA help crowdfund for Mike Reardon to do that PhD he mentions! Or even just run it as an RSA project...? I'd love to know the action-logics etc of our political leaders ;-) Prof Jake Chapman FRSA is someone who began to look at some of this...

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