Monday, May 23, 2011

What kind of leadership do we need in Suffolk now?

I listened to Andrew Marr's interview with Barack Obama yesterday. For me he embodies what leadership is all about. Clear, strong values. Calmness in adversity. Sensitivity to human feeling. An ability to raise others and paint a big picture - but also a clear eye for detail. Toughness when required but also persuasion as the main weapon.

When I was a CEO, I didn't always rate myself as a leader that much. I could, I think, inspire people, I could build a picture - but I never felt sure enough of myself as a manager of people. I need to be liked that little bit too much. People, I think, found me just the wrong side of flexible - a bit of a pushover. I also flapped quite a lot, sometimes not very privately either. Painfully aware of my weaknesses, I always felt like an actor who had only learned half his lines.

I know this isn't unique. I know all CEOs feel, to some extent, frauds waiting to be unmasked. I know few that ride that delicate balance between having good relatonships with colleagues and having the wrong sort of dynamic - either not being sufficiently 'above the fray' or so far above it that people can't relate to you.

The best advice I ever had was to be myself. This meant, of course, accepting that I was never going to be a Barack Obama, but it also meant that I was going to be authentic. People tend, I found, to respond well to that. By following the contours of your personality, rather than a template for leadership, colleagues found, eventually, a way to work around certain predictable patterns. Interestingly, by being more frank about my weaknesses, support mechanisms developed where they didn't before. By being more human, I didn't I find become less 'CEO-like'

Which bring me on today's matters in hand. In Suffolk, we are currently without a CEO. She is on long-term leave pending the outcome of an investigation into the organisation's culture. Her style was a funny mix of visionary, inspirational and confrontational. I make no bones of the fact that I like Andrea Hill. She is smart, interesting and brave. But she's got a very different 'leadership face'. Which, in my experience, has been to show no weakness, to meet fire with fire and to be fairly brutally honest in her assessments of people and situations. She doesn't sweeten any pills.

The net effect of her style was mixed. On the one hand, she drew some great people into our Council who have been rainmakers. She also gave our Council clear direction, energy and agenda. On the other, she was a divisive figure who seemed, to staff, to be scary and remote, cold and unsympathatic. My guess is that she needed a 'front' just to get through some very difficult times - but that in creating this may have made matters more difficult for herself. That a little more of herself shown would, ironically, have taken some pressure off her.

Obviously, nobody knows what happens next. It's a matter for HR and the leaders of the Council to decide what happens. My fear is that if she doesn't come back, the Suffolk experience may become a cautionary fable for Councils who might seek to do things differently. But perchance she does return, I think she would do well to review a leadership style which, while inspiratonal to some was difficult for many to deal with. And that it was the many, in the end, that saw off some of the ideas with which she was most closely associated.


Edward Harkins said...

Craig two things. First, I've just been sitting on an appeal panel dealing with a set of appeals against compulsory redundancy in a medium sized organisation.

As a result, I'm finding yet again in business life another demonstration of the horrendously complex issue of organisations' internal cultures. The nub of this matter can be that no matter how good (literally) a lead figure may be in many respects, if those populating the organisation's culture resent the leader, and take against him or her, it can become a significant and maybe intractable problem.

It seems to often arise when the new leader figure is trying to force the organisation away from myopic mindsets and self-serving mores and instead look outwards to those clients, publics, customers or whatever that they are meant to be serving.

I cannot yet understand why, but this internal culture thing seems to especially afflict public sector and large third sector organisations.

Secondly - and only in the passing - I cannot share your elegy for Obama. He has shifted on principles, almost always backwards, as much as the Clintons did (see health-care, tax and war). It's in the nature, context and style of the USA political system. To expect over-articulate and superbly accomplished stage performers to change that is doomed to end in tears (who was that very similar guy we had in the UK?... oh yes, Tony Blair!)

Anonymous said...

It does seem of some interest that the attempt at some sort of virtual council was not convincing. One of the bemusing claims by free market fundamentalists is that people do not care where their services come from- well that naive assumption is ahistorical.It demonsrates ignorance of our culture, values, attitudes and beliefs. We DO care,people want a publicly owned, publicly funded; employing public sector workers and the Jihad of market fundamentalists over the past thiry years has not changed that eg students against the privatisation of Higher Education;
basice needs health;education;waste disposal; social care [ Southern Cross ] are not bake beans and cannot be exposed to Shock Therapy capitalism.