McTernan on politics

In the fraught arena of public service reform there is one area of
consensus: leadership is critical to quality delivery. Whatever
their other differences, all politicians unite in the view that
what distinguishes the successful school, the high-performing
hospital or the beacon council is the quality of their leaders.
This political rhetoric is backed up by substantial investment in
the training and development of current and future leaders.

One thing, though, is missing in the discussion of public service
leadership – a robust model of how leadership should operate in the
21st century.

Politics as a profession is a series of struggles for position – to
be selected, elected, become a minister. And because so little is
invested in the training and development of politicians at all
levels they never get the chance to consider alternative approaches
to the heroically hierarchical approach to change. Unfortunately,
this no longer works well.

David Burnham, a Harvard-based psychologist, has been studying
leadership for nearly 30 years and he has noticed a change in what
makes successful leaders. In 1976 he co-authored a study that
identified the characteristics of leaders whose companies always
performered well. The core beliefs and actions of those leaders
were consistent. They thought: people need me, I must provide
answers, I must set direction, I must decide what is right. They
led by: providing vision, directing others, and making the

This is a good description of a British cabinet minister’s
approach. Burnham revisited his research in the 1990s and found
that companies that stuck to this model were no longer doing so
well. A new paradigm of leadership was succeeding as the new
century approached. As we moved from an industrial age to an
information age new skills were needed.

Superior leaders have different beliefs based on mutuality. They
think: we need each other; we do not, indeed sometimes cannot, know
all the answers; the group must set the direction; the group must
decide what is right. And in their actions they co-create and share
purpose, stimulate debate and questioning and share decisions with
others. This is a suggestive analysis.

The characteristics of superior leadership in the 21st century, as
identified by Burnham, are at odds with the top-down,
target-driven, delivery-focused model of management widely used.
And although late 20th century models of leadership can still have
an impact, they cannot achieve the transformation that is the
avowed intention of political leaders. We have to work with, and
influence, each other to succeed.

John McTernan is a political analyst.

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