Reflections on good leadership in the public sector
There are thousands of books about leadership, very few of which seem to have been written by people who have led major public sector organisations. These are the leaders we tend only to hear about when their organisations are in crisis or at the centre of a major policy failure, the relevant senior civil servant whose failures come suddenly blinking into the public glare.
In an effort to shine a light on what inspirational leadership looks like in the public sector, the RSA sponsored me to record a series of podcast interviews with leaders and leadership thinkers who have inspired me during my time in government. I explored questions around the core capabilities needed to make a good leader in the public sector, whether these can be taught and whether they are different from those required of private sector leaders. In doing so, I reflected on my experience at the Ministry of Justice and, more recently, at Her Majesty’s Probation Inspectorate, working to develop ways in which we can rate the leadership of local probation. So, what themes emerged?
As Professor David Pendleton of Henley Business School told me: “Leaders have to operate effectively in three domains. There’s a strategic domain, which is all about tomorrow [and]… the world of possibilities. There’s the operational domain, which is all about today… about Gantt charts, goals and budgets. And then there’s the interpersonal domain, because irrespective of where you’re working or what timescale you’re working on, the key thing is to bring out the best in people.” Or, in the words of Steve Radcliffe, whose ‘Future-Engage-Deliver’ model has been taught across a range of government departments, “As a leader, you’ve got to talk about where we’re going or what we are building. You’ve then got to interact with people, so they want to come with you. Then you’ve got to get on and do it.” Pendleton and Radcliffe offer a convincing and common sense set of competencies, which is why we have made Future-Engage-Deliver integral to the Inspectorate’s plan for rating and inspecting the work of regional probation directors from April next year.
Jo Dibb was the headteacher at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school in North London for 15 years. Her school was rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted and served as an inspiration to Michelle Obama, who has visited it three times. According to Dibb, “Heads have to be very clear and explicit about where they’re coming from. What it is they’re trying to achieve. About the moral purpose of the school. About how the school can make a difference to the life chances of the young people. They have to empower others and they have to make the job do-able, so that other people want to aspire to do it as well.”
Reflecting on how she created a shared vision for girls coming from so many different cultures, Dibb said: “It’s about creating an identity which is physical, but is also not tangible at all… about the sense of who we are, what we believe in, how we treat each other and knowing that when you step over the school gates you have entered a different world.”
Not all leaders have such freedom. For permanent secretaries leading government departments, the vision-setting space must be shared with a politician. Two ex-permanent secretaries I interviewed were surprisingly phlegmatic about this. Sir David Bell was permanent secretary at the Department for Education from 2004 to 2010, serving under four different secretaries of state and three different prime ministers. “Your role is to negotiate the best way in which the civil service both provides advice to the Secretary of State and helps [them] to achieve their objective… the civil service doesn’t have an independent life or policy, or it shouldn’t have. It is there to serve the elected government of the day.”
Dame Claire Moriarty, Permanent Secretary at Defra from 2015 to 2019, acknowledged that there could be tensions between two key directives that civil servants should “give their best advice to ministers” but also “must implement whatever ministers decide to do”. Nevertheless, she believes that while “obviously, you don’t get to set the policy… there are so many aspects to how a government department operates which are largely the preserve of the perm sec.”
Professor Sir Michael Barber was head of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit and a colleague at the time I was working in the Number 10 Policy Unit during Tony Blair’s second term. Barber talked about the importance of establishing a ‘guiding coalition’ in setting a shared vision for the future, a concept coined by the management thinker John Kotter in his book Leading Change (1996). These are “the seven to 10 people in positions of leadership or influence on whom you depend to get the job done” and who have a shared understanding of what the task is and how to go about it.
In my experience, such guiding coalitions are rare in government, not least because the constant churn of ministers and senior civil servants prevents stable coalitions forming and can lead to repeated changes of strategy. For example, in the just three years since David Gauke appointed me Chief Inspector, I have reported to three different Lord Chancellors and am now onto my sixth (!) prisons and probation minister. Each time there is a change, senior officials must check that the strategic direction remains the same and that key procurement decisions do not have to be reopened, causing months of delay. But this vision from the top must be shared by the people who need to deliver the change, such as frontline managers, staff and service users. These are the people who will link the guiding coalition or service leader to what Barber calls the ‘delivery chain’.
One of these frontline leaders is Pia Sinha, Director of Women at Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and former governor of HMP Liverpool. Sinha, the first Asian woman to govern a prison in England and Wales, was brought in to turn Liverpool Prison round in 2017 following a damning inspection report on conditions there. In our interview, she talked about the importance of finding a leadership team that was up for the huge challenges ahead. “I sat down and had one-to-ones with my senior leadership team and I said ‘this is our task ahead. This is going to be bloody hard work. Are you up for it? Do you have the energy for it?’”
Once her senior team was established, she set out to involve the broader staff group and the prisoners themselves in ‘Project Liverpool’. Prisoners who had been spending hours every day locked in their cell, bored and frustrated, were brought out and put on work parties fixing windows, painting cells and clearing litter. “Before you knew it there was a bit of a movement created… a sense of pride in everyone who worked in [the prison], whether you were a prisoner, or a partner or a member of staff.”
The ability to inspire a movement and ignite a passion for change is not something generally associated with the civil service, which values what Radcliffe terms ‘intellectual energy’ over the ‘spirit’ and ‘emotional’ energies he believes are needed to ignite engagement, and which people are increasingly looking for in their leaders, but all too often find lacking.
This is particularly so in Whitehall, where, as I found, your ability to get ahead still often depends on how you are perceived to ‘perform’ in front of ministers or whether you can hold your own in Treasury negotiations. As Radcliffe reflected, intellectual energy is “a great suit to play for policy, for strategy, for arguing your corner with a minister” but not for “leading your people” or letting them know “their opinion counts”. This view was supported by Moriarty, who lamented the very analytical and task-focused approach of the civil service at the expense of the people they lead.
The third key domain of leadership, highlighted in both the Pendleton and Radcliffe models, is delivery. Barber shared his insights from a lifetime supporting leaders from Tony Blair to Shahbaz Sharif, Chief Minister of the Punjab, to deliver ambitious policy goals. Central to successful delivery is not only the importance of the ‘delivery chain’, which links the leaders (who set the guiding vision), to the staff on the ground (who must deliver it), but also a solid understanding of the links in that chain and how each can be influenced.
Leaders must understand how delivery gets done. As David Bell said: “The leader who is strategic all the time is in danger of divorcing themselves from the reality of what’s happening in their organisation … so you have to be willing and able to engage in delivery. You have to know enough about it in an organisation to know if things are going well or not.”
There is always the danger of leaders getting too much into the details, something I’ve suffered from myself after a lifetime of working to cabinet ministers who are continually being challenged on the details through the scrutiny of parliament and the media. They end up judging officials not by how well they lead their teams but by how much ‘grip’ they have on policy detail. Barber was clear, however, that “the bigger danger is… believing what you see in some business books, that leaders ‘do strategy’ and other people ‘do the detail’. That’s definitely a mistake.” He emphasises the importance of routines that build in time to review delivery on a regular and protected basis, and pointed to the success of the delivery stocktakes with cabinet colleagues that he built into Tony Blair’s diary.
So, ‘future-engage-deliver’ – all key competencies for a good leader. But is it possible to be equally adept at three such disparate skills? Pendleton thinks not. “What we’ve found is that those people who try to be even-handed in terms of their development sadly often end up rather mediocre in all of them.” Rather than try to be good at everything, Pendleton urges us to embrace the concept of the ‘incomplete leader’ and focus instead on the complete team. That means understanding where your strengths and weaknesses are and consciously recruiting people into your senior team who are different and complementary to you in order to fill those gaps.
Which brings us to the ultimate test of a leader: growing the generation of leaders that will come after you. Radcliffe advocates creating a common language and set of leadership concepts that everybody understands and can relate to. “In every organisation, you’ve got processes, you’ve got strategy, you’ve got structures, you’ve got people... but leadership is the ingredient which gets the best out of all the other ingredients.” And that is perhaps the most fundamental lesson of all.
To listen to the Lessons in Leadership podcast series
Justin Russell has served as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Probation since June 2019. Previously, from 2016 to early 2019, he was Director General, Justice Analysis and Offender Policy at the Ministry of Justice
Follow Justin Russell on Twitter here: @JNRussell10
This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 3 2022.
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