Hero-leaders aren’t the answer

Catherine Mangan

I read with interest the announcement that Stuart Rose has been asked by Jeremy Hunt to lead a review into how to improve leadership in the NHS. Hunt’s thinking is that Rose, as “one of the country’s most inspirational leaders”, can play a significant role in stopping hospitals failing in the future, because “The difference between good and bad care can often lie in leadership.” This appointment is typical of how Government tends to view leadership – traditionally focused on particular individuals and heroes. But a new narrative is emerging that focuses more on distributed or dispersed leadership. This perspective suggests a need for a new kind of public sector leader to respond to the changing context, in which leadership beyond boundaries and beyond spans of authority will become more important. There is recognition that the most pressing issues for society are complex and span the remits of many different agencies – now universally referred to as ‘wicked’ issues. These wicked issues can’t be solved by one public sector agency alone and require collaboration between public sector organisations, the private sector, voluntary organisations, communities and individuals. This has raised the question for leadership theorists and practitioners about whether the traditional concept of a leader is still fit for purpose or whether there is a need for a new way to think about the role of a leader and the skills that will be needed.

There are several terms to describe this new type of leadership, including collaborative, collective, contested, distributed and dispersed leadership. Two frameworks in particular have found resonance with the public sector and helped to frame thinking about different leadership approaches. First, Heifitz’s adaptive leadership model, which he defines as ‘mobilising people to tackle tough problems’ and, second, Mark Moore’s concept of public value, which enables a leader to look beyond immediate pressures to focus on what the public most value and what will add value to the public sphere. Both these approaches call for new sets of leadership skills.

More recently there has been a call for a new breed of leaders from Wilson’s ‘Anti hero project’ which builds on Heifetz’s model where effective leaders avoid being the hero who has to find a solution for every problem. The Anti hero report suggests that the workforce recognise the need for new leadership approaches. Survey respondents identified the top five leadership characteristics that are currently overvalued as control, charisma, power, financial skills and expertise – those very traditional concepts of leadership – whereas the five key undervalued skills were collaboration, humility, listening, empathy and integrity. It is clear that for leaders to be able to operate in a diverse, collaborative environment, these ‘undervalued’ skills will be the ones that will produce results. Similarly, recent work by the Public Sector People Managers’ Association (PPMA), concludes that: ‘From our interviews [with chief executives and HR directors in a range of local service organisations] it is clear that there is widespread belief that public services can only be more responsive to the needs of service users if employees on the front line are trusted to innovate and empowered to act with more autonomy. This requires a fundamental culture change away from traditional command and control models of leadership to one in which leadership is distributed across organisations’. In order to achieve this, leaders clearly need to be confident (and humble) enough to ‘let go’ and enable this distribution of power to front line workers.

There is a clear picture emerging of the type of leader and the skills set that is needed now, and in future, to tackle society’s wicked issues. But if Government continue to focus on the ‘heroic leader’, how can we enable these types of leaders to emerge?

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