Obituary: Mike Leadbetter

Jenny Owen pays tribute to Mike Leadbetter

The death of Mike Leadbetter, no surprise to those who knew how ill he has been, is a dreadful loss. A huge loss for his wife Pam and two sons, Lin and Jan; for the many friends he has accumulated over such a long career; for all the staff in Essex County Council where he is still fondly remembered, and by colleagues throughout ADASS who’ll remember the wit and the wisdom with which he led them, as president, through some pretty dark days at the beginning of this century.

On a very personal note I’d find it hard ever to forget his generosity when I was appointed director in Essex a couple of years after he’d retired. It was then when I’d like to think we became friends. He was a big man in every sense, and he was especially so in the advice he gave me about the complexities of running a county social services department as big as Essex’s.

He was born in the north west, and was Lancashire through and through. He didn’t particularly shine at first: he left school with few qualifications and did a number of dead end jobs before lighting on printing for a first career. From what evidence there is, he didn’t like it: but he was good enough at it to get both practical and management qualifications, and to end up managing a rather big concern in Manchester.

He is, of course, remembered for having played rugby for England. But he trained four nights a week at it in order to reach that goal, and meanwhile played for Lancashire, the northwest counties and north of England. He was also captain of Broughton Park rugby club for two seasons – 1970 and 1973.

He never got over the bitterness showed to him when he transferred from union to league. He used to complain that other players left bottles of shampoo in the shower for him to accentuate the belief that only `posh’ people played union: league players used soap! Given his huge size and strength and his love of a violent game, Mike was probably the gentlest, least macho or sexist man I have known.

He left printing when the trade was in decline, and joined Manchester social services as an unqualified social worker when social work was about to take off. From the outset he was fascinated by psychodynamic theories in the profession, an interest which dominated his thinking, and very often his conversation. I remember at the end of a joint interview for a senior social work manager I did with him, he asked the unfortunate interviewee “when you’ve had a really hard day, and you really need to relax and sort your thinking out, which social work theory do you tend to fall back on…?”

He stayed at Manchester until 1986, when he moved to Tameside as director. It was, then, a special tug for him to leave those north western roots seven years later when he was appointed DSS for Essex County Council. He is still remembered with devotion by many of those former colleagues in what has always been a very lively ADSS/ADASS region.

And he is held in this huge respect for very much the same reasons for the respect he is afforded in Essex: he was always very helpful, full of sound, straightforward advice and guidance and built close personal relationships with colleagues. Perhaps his favourite concept was dignity – making sure people were treated with dignity, that they had space in which to preserve their dignity and that we had the time to contribute to it. He was there long, long before Ivan Lewis turned it into government policy.

And of course, who could ever forget that his favourite word was `elegant’? If Mike liked a complicated solution to a difficult problem, it was `elegant'; if an explanation touched a chord, it was `elegant’. He used the word so often and well it began to have a life of its own within the ADSS presidential team of the time.

His involvement in the association ran deep. He was chair of the old Thames/Anglia branch, chaired the ADSS human resources and training committee, and was the lead member acting for the association in lobbying for the creation of the GSCC. For a long while he was an ADSS board member on the now defunct TOPSS and, of course, spent a memorable year as president between 2001 and 2002.

The year was dominated by Victoria Climbie and her tragic death. But memorably, he travelled to Belfast and became the only president ever to be invited to speak to the Society of Newspaper Editors whose director remembered playing in the same rugby team as Mike, many years before.

Mike left Essex in 2003, but still pursued an exacting role in the centre of social care. He chaired Voice, and Parent line Plus, and was a trustee of the Caldecotte Foundation, and a rugby charity – Wooden Spoon. He also chaired the Social Work Practice Learning Task Force and later the Children’s Workforce Development Council.

He interimmed too, at Kensington and Chelsea, Luton, and the London Borough of Ealing, and still found time to be on the board of the General Social Care Council and to act as a non executive director of the North Essex PCT.

Devoted to his wife Pam and two sons, Mike will be sorely missed, and long remembered, by all those who came into contact with him.

Jenny Owen
Vice President,

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