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Across all public services, including health, the skill sets of leaders in the future need to be different, and the type of leadership approach also needs to change.  In our 21st Century Public Servant research, several interviewees mentioned the concept of systems leadership, as proposed by a recent report by the Virtual Staff College [i].  They argue that the concept of systems leadership (or collaborative leadership in the health service) replaces the traditional notion of the leader as the sole source of power and authority with a version of leadership which reflects the complexity of modern society and the decline of deference.  The argument is that ‘in these troubled, uncertain times, we don’t need more command and control, we need better means to engage everyone’s intelligence in solving challenges and crises as they arise’.

Catherine Mangan
Catherine Needham

Interviewees reflected this – with one saying that ‘collaborative leadership is about creating conditions in which others can thrive’. The leaders themselves recognise this shift, with a recent survey of council chief executives finding that: ‘public services can only be more responsive to the needs of service users if employees on the front line are trusted to innovate and empowered to act with more autonomy. This requires a fundamental culture change away from traditional command and control models of leadership to one in which leadership is distributed across organisations’ [ii].   As one interviewee put it ‘The kind of system leadership which is required now is seen to favour a different skills set to the ‘fix it’ leadership of the past’.   Leaders also need to be self aware and emotionally intelligent: ‘Someone who understands what they are bringing to the table so understands who else needs to be there.’

Interviewees suggested that leaders needed to do different things, but also needed a different style of leadership:  ‘The concept of leadership is changing from being one where leaders are expected to perform to one that enables others to be effective.’  This is an approach which, ‘…requires being with people and allowing them to be themselves, listening, noticing, observing and deploying yourself accurately in situations…. it’s about making teams and networks effective... about having a repertoire’.   

Hero Leaders

Interviewees  emphasised the importance of leaders having  passion, strong values and motivation if they are to support others to improve outcomes; one interviewee commented that  ‘Leadership for outcomes only works if people care’.  There was a call for leadership to promote shared endeavour across the whole system rather than merely enabling others to do things:  ‘It’s about making it happen.  It is so difficult to make it happen that it will only happen through passion and belief in what's to be done.’One interviewee suggested that ‘What links all the different models of leadership is uncertainty, doing things where you can and when you can.’

Although an organisation needs someone to act as the face of the institution it ‘doesn’t require a charismatic leader’, as one interviewee put it. This suggestion reflects the Virtual College findings that there is a distinction between the ’old fashioned notion of the domineering leader, whose power comes from their willingness to coerce others, and the requirement on a modern leader to be a member of a team, making their presence felt by their ability to achieve a collective sense of purpose’[iii].   One contributor to the Virtual College report felt that social media could be a real opportunity for leaders to make their presence felt as it ‘gives the leader a name and gets the messages across as a leader.’[iv] The engagement of public servants with social media is discussed in more detail in section 10 below.

Whilst recognising the need for this new type of leadership, interviewees questioned whether there were the right levers in place to make a change.   Although some organisations are being explicit about the different types of leadership behaviours they want and recruiting to those competencies,  the traditional models of leadership and the associated ‘macho’ type behaviours still exist and tend to be rewarded within the public sector. 

Catherine Needham is a Reader in Public Policy at HSMC; Catherine Mangan is a Senior Fellow at INLOGOV. A version of this article appeared on their 21st Century Public Servant blog,


[i] Scott, P, Harris, J, Florek, A, Systems leadership for effective services (2012) Virtual Staff College, Nottingham 2012,

[ii] Asking the Right Questions, SOLACE and LGA 2012,

[iii] Scott, P, Harris, J, Florek, A, Systems Leadership for effective services (2012) Virtual Staff College, Nottingham 2012,

[iv] Scott, P, Harris, J, Florek, A, Systems leadership for effective services (2012) Virtual Staff College, Nottingham 2012,