Monday, 7 December 2009

When in a tight corner is it a good idea to come out fighting?

Leadership consultant Danny Chesterman recently observed “I am increasingly finding that oppressive types of leader behaviour are becoming commonplace”. Whether it’s actually getting worse is open to question, but there is no shortage of examples. Three in the last few days come to mind. First up was Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, writing to 12 local authorities with poor-performing primary schools “demanding” that they write action plans by the end of January. Second was Prime Minster Gordon Brown criticizing the “culture of excess” among the senior public-sector ranks (no matter that the pay levels for their jobs are set by others when they want to fill a post). Third was Barbara Young, Chairman of the Care Quality Commission, who resigned after a difficult meeting with Andy Burnham, Secretary of State for Health. It had emerged that investigators were being sent into an Essex hospital (see post on this topic on 30 November) because dozens of patients are thought to have died due to inadequate care. A month earlier, the CQC had rated the quality of care at the hospital as good, leading to a row about the CQC's credibility.

In all three cases, these public leaders had found themselves in a tight corner; their quality, budgetary and PR systems – for schools, civil service and hospitals – were all failing. Barbara Young’s response, it was reported in The Guardian, was to propose a stricter inspection regime. Ball’s response was to turn up the volume control button. Brown’s was to “name and shame”.

In place of seeking to judge and direct, all three overlook the importance of quality relationships and dialogue if one wants to bring about improvement. The author Margaret Wheatley advises: “Hierarchy and defined power are not what is important; what’s critical is the availability of places for the exchange of energy” (Leadership and the New Science, Berrett-Koehler, 1999). Wheatley is a staunch advocate of participatory relationships. Nowadays, we might speak of relationships based on a sense of partnership. Paradoxically, partnerships are all the rage (sic) in the public sector.