Leaders should be prepared to follow

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
Ministers cannot dictate change; they have to work with people, says John McTernan

Politicians today are often accused of blindly following public opinion.

Their use of focus groups is argued to be a betrayal of a truly principled approach to developing policies. Yet the fashion for going with the flow of public feeling is not a new one. Famously, during the 1848 Revolution which established the Second Republic in France, Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, one of the radical politicians of the time, was sitting in a cafe.

Suddenly, a huge mob swept down the street past him. After rising and composing himself, he announced: "There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader."

This is often cited as the acme of followership. But I am not sure that is entirely fair. In fact, Ledru-Rollin provides one of the best strategies for successful leadership in the 21st century.

Leadership is one of those words that has made the journey from hardcore management-speak to the heart of political discourse. Search the website of the Department for Education and Skills and you will find 17,183 references, overwhelming even that hardy perennial "change" which only manages 14,000 citations. It is leadership, we are told again and again by leading politicians, which truly makes the difference in delivering excellence in public services, its importance surpasses all else.

The focus on leadership is to some extent self-serving. It clearly lays the onus - and where necessary the blame - on the headteacher, the hospital chief executive or the chief constable. Yet it creates space for a minister to intervene with time-lines, milestones, key performance indicators and all the other paraphernalia of targetry.

We all know from personal experience that in a variety of contexts individual leaders can make a transformational impact on a group, a team or a whole organisation. Though whether that is ever replicable outside the precise context in which it occurs is also debatable. I have heard Gerard Houllier give a compelling presentation on management, but his Liverpool football team still struggle to achieve the peak performance of which its individuals should be capable.

One of the most suggestive analyses of leadership is David Burnham's and David McLelland's classic 1976 Harvard Business Review article, "Power is the great motivator", where they analyse the leaders of successful companies. Chief executives of companies which were consistently in the upper quartile of performance shared many common characteristics. Their primary beliefs were: people need me; I must provide answers; I must create certainty about the right course of action.

They were classic heroic leaders - providing vision, directing others, coaching and cheerleading but, above all, calling the shots and making the critical decisions. This is pretty well the leadership paradigm to which First Minister Jack McConnell subscribes. There is no problem too complex, no solution so nuanced, no risk so difficult to mitigate that he cannot issue an unambiguous instruction on the correct way forward.

Unfortunately, even with the support of his cabinet and the substantial resources of the Scottish Executive, the First Minister does not always get it right. And the fundamental reason for that is not that he has the wrong people advising him, but that he actually cannot get it right.

The hierarchical organisation he believes he runs - a unified Scottish Public Service with him as chief executive officer - does not exist. It is only a metaphor - and a destructive one at that - derived from analogy with manufacturing industries. Schools, hospitals and police forces are not factories. One of the great Government mantras at the moment - north and south of the border - is focusing on delivery. Immense frustration is expressed by ministers about how they have no levers to pull which can influence behaviour down the line. What they will not acknowledge is the underlying problem - that delivery is for pizzas, not for complex personal services.

Education, health and law and order are not "delivered" in any meaningful sense. They are "co-produced". Patients, parents, pupils and the public are partners in the creation of the desired outcomes. Nine out of 10 health problems in Scotland are self-diagnosed and self-treated. The majority of patients who see GPs have chronic health problems which they, at least, co-manage. Parents take children to school on time, read with them at home and make sure homework is done and supported.

Interestingly, Burnham revisited his study of successful companies in the late 1990s and identified a paradigm shift. New models of leadership characterise the top performers: 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 questioning and dialogue; and they share decisions with others.

Now these are not some happy-clappy, New Age business leaders but the top executives in blue chip companies. 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. Excellence in public services will only come if there is an acknowledgement of the fundamental truth that such services are co-produced not delivered. That will require a shift in attitudes by all concerned. In education, that means far greater sharing of information with parents about what is being taught and how they can support the learning.

It requires far more sophisticated methods of communication than are currently used. Why still use pupil post when most families have access to e-mail? And when parents raise questions about policy and practice they should be listened to and responded to as equal partners rather than sullenly resented for entering the secret garden.

Headteachers, like other public service leaders, need to learn the paradoxical truth of Ledru-Rollin's observation - effective modern leadership lies in following your customers.

John McTernan is a former Scottish Executive special adviser and chairs a school board.

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