I must confess I’m not a great reader of books, despite the best efforts of friends and colleagues, mainly because I spend so much time reading emails, papers and letters at work. I’ve had a healthy scepticism of the management “panacea” books whereby if you start acting like Alan Sugar or Tom Peters you’ll suddenly transform into a great inspirational leader. And I have a rule of thumb that anyone who claims to be an inspirational leader generally isn’t.
That said, the nearest leadership theory I’ve heard of that describes what I believe in is the idea of “servant leadership” put forward by Robert Greenleaf. Wikipedia describes it as follows:
“Traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid.” By comparison, the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”
That to me describes pretty well the challenge of leadership in a decade of austerity and a Century in which the big issues like poverty, inequality, climate change, social cohesion, obesity, ageing and the like can’t be tackled by a command and control model. They also demand leadership across silos in organisations, between different bodies and from front-line staff and middle managers as well as at the “top” of organisations.
Leaders emerge every day in Leeds; to catch an elderly person with dementia to stop them from falling, to protect a child who is in danger, to stand up to racist abuse or homophobia, and in countless social situations. Football and netball coaches, scout leaders, coffee morning organisers and the like play a positive civic leadership role in localities. The Commission on the Future of Local Government led by Leeds City Council concluded that it was often Council staff – rather than a well known motoring organisation – who acted as the fourth emergency service. And of course to get anything done successfully in a city like Leeds the Council is only one of the players on the pitch. We rely on community leaders, voluntary groups, businesses, charities, schools, universities, GPs and many more to help tackle these challenges and take advantage of opportunities.
Some commentators see this “atomisation” of public policy as part of the crisis of democracy in that it excludes and diminishes the role of Elected Members and local government. It certainly challenges the “old” model of command and control for many organisations, but the Leeds Commission concluded that Councils needed to empower local ward members to take a wider community champion role to extend their democratic mandate. Councils have the organising capacity and mandate that many others don’t, and Leeds City Council is seeking to do just that.
Leaders for Leeds is a great example of how this new “sector-less” civic enterprise approach can help tackle the big issues we face.