McTernan on politics

What are the government’s favourite words? When it comes to public
service reform two are top of the pops: change and leadership. The
world is changing, we are told, and we must change – and apparently
what will make the difference will be leadership.

This political focus on leadership is self-serving. On the one hand
it lays the onus or blame on the head teacher, the hospital chief
executive or the chief constable. On the other it creates space for
a minister to intervene with time-lines, milestones, key
performance indicators and all the other paraphernalia of
target-mania. Yet, the broader question remains: does the
government have a credible intellectual model of leadership?

Ministers appear to subscribe to the heroic model of leadership.
This style – providing vision, directing others, coaching and
cheerleading but above all calling the shots – is one that
characterised top-performing companies in the 1970s. David Burnham
and David McLelland’s classic 1976 Harvard Business Review article,
“Power is the great motivator”, found that chief executives of
companies which were consistently in the upper quartile of
performance shared many common traits.

Their primary beliefs were: people need me; I must provide answers;
I must create certainty about the right course of action. They were
heroic leaders making the critical decisions.

But that style of leadership no longer delivers success. Burnham
revisited his study in the late 1990s and identified a paradigm
shift. New models of leadership characterise the top performers.
Their CEOs believe we need each other, we don’t need to know all
the answers, the group must decide what is right. They act this out
by sharing the creation of organisational purpose, they stimulate
dialogue and questions, and they share decisions with others.

Why have they changed? Because the world has changed. The
industrial age is over: it is being replaced by the information
age. Networks are replacing hierarchies. Human capital is becoming
more important than capital sunk in plant. The philosophy is “we
must influence each other” not “I must influence you”. And that is
the key to public service leadership. Ministers often complain that
they lack the levers to effect change. That is no accident – there
is no UK Public Service plc with a hierarchical chain of command
down which to transmit orders.

As Burnham shows, that is the thinking of the past. In the future,
excellence will come through the acknowledgement of the reality of
co-production and working to support and sustain

John McTernan is a political analyst.

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