Do we expect too much of leaders?

Alan Walters Building - Room G11
Lectures Talks and Workshops, Social Sciences
Wednesday 5th April 2017 (18:00-19:00)
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We are delighted to present the inaugural lecture of Professor Catherine Staite, Director for Public Service Reform.  The event will take place in G11, Alan Walters on Wednesday 5 April 18:00-19:00, followed by a short drinks reception.

Leadership is a powerful and pervasive concept in the public sector.  Leadership theories have changed over time. With a gradual shift of focus from the personal attributes and actions of leaders to the context within which leadership is practiced.  However, although the ‘Great Man’ or traits theories of the 19th century have been overlaid by the behavioural theories promulgated in 1930s and ideas of leadership as a ‘competency’, developed in the 1980s, our expectations of leaders are still haunted by ghosts of ‘leadership past’. The ideas of leadership as personal, singular and even heroic still hold sway.  When things get too difficult - ‘we need strong leadership’. ‘We can solve the problems of the West Midlands by having a directly elected mayor’.  The Great Man theory is alive and well. 

There have been major advances in leadership theory, as society has become more diverse, more women have become leaders and institutions have changed and evolved, particularly the roles which situation or context play in the success of leadership.  In the 1980s, the emotional intelligence of leaders and their sensitivity to different situations and needs of diverse ‘followers’ were identified as critical success factors for leadership.

The introduction of the concept of the ‘learning organisation’ offered a better understanding of how leadership can create an environment within which all can learn. This has led to the development of theories about how to lead across whole systems without hierarchical authority. Concepts such as ‘collaborative leadership’, ‘network governance’ and ‘adaptive leadership’ have gained currency as it has become ever more apparent that no one organisation, or leader, can achieve their goals in isolation.  These beliefs have underpinned the development of partnerships, culminating in Combined Authorities, such as the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA).

One explanation for the ghostly presence of ‘leadership past’ is the way in which our thinking about leadership is underpinned by tacit narratives, which help us make sense of complex and sometimes conflicting realities.  Just as the many different historic layers of leadership theory co-exist in society and organisations, the underpinning narratives of ‘paternalism’ – in which the leader is omnipotent, ‘consumerism’ – where the leader focuses on getting results and ‘citizenship’ – where leaders, followers and those they serve work together for the benefit of all.

Expectations of leadership have remained high, even as the demands of leadership roles have required ever more sophisticated abilities to read people and situations, to assess and manage risk, to make sense of complexity and paradox, to maintain a steady nerve in the face of major crises – not forgetting to be ‘authentic’ throughout.

Does that mean we do expect too much of leaders?  Should we continue to have high expectations of leaders? Do those expectations need to be balanced by similarly high expectations of ourselves - so the leader’s responsibility, to ensure more good things and fewer bad things happen, becomes the shared responsibility of us all?

Professor Catherine Staite is Director for Public Service Reform and a key member of the Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV) at the University of Birmingham, teaching leadership, people management, collaborative strategy and strategic commissioning to Masters level. Catherine joined INLOGOV in 2010 from the Office for Public Management (OPM), where she was Director of Organisational Development and Policy and led a number of major research projects. Previously, she worked with the Audit Commission and led North Humberside MIND.