Monday, 3 May 2010

Baby Peter Connelly’s legacy (1): What does strategic leadership look like?

In this case (see the previous post) one of Ofsted’s criticisms was that Sharon Shoesmith had not displayed strategic leadership. It is a charge that can be laid at many a senior manager’s door. Judging by the behaviour of Gordon Brown, notoriously embroiled in detail, it is frequently true of senior politicians seeking short-term ‘hits’. While there is no single and agreed definition of ‘strategic leadership’, three key ingredients come to mind.

First, leaders need a systemic appreciation of their organisation (and what systemic leadership failure looks like, since that is what happened in Haringey), and how their leadership is shaped by that system as well as how their leadership can help shape that system.

Secondly, they need to know how to spread the activity of leadership widely and down the managerial structure in a carefully considered way that takes account of performance management and accountability design issues.

Thirdly, leaders need a mental model of their three roles and have a means of managing the time and commitment given to each. The roles are: 1 delivering today, 2 safeguarding tomorrow (via improvement and change), and 3 providing supervisory oversight to other managers actively engaged with level 2. This third aspect of the role is probably the lest understood and comprises the elements below.

1. provides a context, reason and challenge.
2. gives permission for the process and events to happen.
3. provides funds, time and other resources.
4. defines a standard of what success or ‘good enough’ looks like.
5. ensures readiness for change: a point between excessive stability and anarchy. (In complexity theory this point is known as the edge of chaos. Managers who have grown up believing that their job is always to seek greater order by exercising control may find this expression intimidating.)
6. disturbs or shakes up the status quo for relevant aspects of how the organisation works and moves forward, making clear that the status quo is not an option. In parallel, it maintains stability of appropriate business interests (e.g. safeguarding customers’ confidence during the change).
7. loosens the system, to weaken strictly hierarchical management of change.
8. licenses more widely distributed power for managers to engage in system-wide improvement activity.
9. gives managers a collective and cross-departmental identity.
10. makes people’s fate rely on inter-dependence, which leads to cooperation, warmth in relationships, and people taking a fair share of responsibility.
11. makes clear how the relevant people will be held to account, individually and collectively.

(This is explained more fully on pp 217-219 of The Search for Leadership.)

This is a tough balancing act, one which keeps the leader in touch with key current operational detail and today’s risks without being swamped by it to the exclusion of their strategic leadership role.