Imagine that you’ve been a student/ practitioner of leadership for over 25 years. Now imagine that one day you realised that most of what you had learned and what others have been promulgating for decades is deeply flawed. When this happened to me three years ago, it was simultaneously shocking, scary and liberating.
Although the orthodoxy on leadership has not remained static, in the main, it is still characterised by the leader being the person who sets and communicates direction and strategies, manages resources, and measures/oversees performance. Successful leaders are often characterised as those who do all this in a supportive way and who “empower” their staff. But at its heart it remains an approach based on command and control.
A few years ago as Director of Housing I began to realise that we had a customer service problem with our housing repairs business unit – a £10m business which undertakes day to day repairs to 22000 council homes. The measures the business were using didn’t say there was a problem, but customers told me there was. On investigation, the business model was failing with too many appointments being missed, jobs not completed in a timely way and a lot of waste. A radically different approach was put in place that has increased customer satisfaction from 65% to around 90%, saved 10% off running costs and increased staff satisfaction.
So what’s this example got to do with leadership? Well that’s the point – not that much. The service problems were diagnosed by staff who do the work, including craftsmen and women; they designed a new service and tested it out on a small scale. They focussed on what was important to customers, how we could join up our organisation to make residents’ lives as easy as possible and meet their needs quickly and in one go. It wasn’t about visions, strategies, leadership role modelling, symbolic actions, training courses, coaching or incentives. It was about getting the work and system design right and everything flowed from that.
After the re-design phase and before the testing of the new approach, colleagues involved in the re- thinking said to me: “no-one’s ever asked us properly what our views are before; we think we have come up with the right thing to do; we’re excited by this new approach; but we think it’s too radical for you to agree to”. That’ s the moment when I realised that these people had more wisdom about their customers and the work than I ever would. They knew what years of top down management had done to service delivery and they knew how to fix it: but they thought it would be ‘same old/ same old ask us what we think then ignore us’. It simply did not make sense for me to sit in judgement over their views and ideas – we had to implement them.
My role and the role of the departmental management team became transformed into one focussed on creating the conditions for the new approach to succeed and ensuring that the radically different approach was understood and supported across the whole organisation (something of a challenge given the increase in risk appetite required and the counter intuitive decentralisation of some of the work).
Three years on and having seen this approach transform other services in my council, we are now setting our sights on council wide and indeed wider public service reform. Yes, leaders will have an important role to play. But in an organisation where there’s now a relentless focus on the ‘outcomes’ of our endeavours and self direction within teams, we’ll need far fewer leaders and only those that can unlearn past approaches and adapt to our reimagined purpose of leadership.