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Beyond collaborative leadership


Veredus and NLGN recently collaborated on some work with local authority chief executives.  We hosted two discussion events with a general theme of collaborative leadership.  This resulted in a considered report which we published in May: the full report can be found here.  We want to acknowledge the great work of Emma Burnell and Kathinka Lyche in writing this and triggering a series of thoughts that have led to this article.

In the report, we drew together some recommendations that seem to have resonated with many people we have talked to subsequently.  These recommendations are: to recognise, accept and embrace the difference in “wins” across collaborative endeavours; collaborate early and continuously; and that local government should work as a sector to create collaborative cohorts.

We concluded that as different types of devolution take hold across the country, we will see a mosaic of different systems and the different leaderships they require. All of these must be able to be held accountable locally.  We summed this up (neatly, we think) as a need for leaders who collaborate, collaborators who lead.

We recognise, that, by and large, current ‘leaders of place’ accept and acknowledge that outward-looking collaboration is a vital part of their current roles.  Most are realistic enough to realise that they have gradually developed the traits and behaviours that come with this imperative – few actively designed their own specific development programme with this end in mind.  In Veredus this work led us into a follow-on conversation that has a few strands:

  • If we accept the conclusions, leadership of place now goes beyond the local authority and even the public sector – how do we harness the great 21st Century Public Servant work by Needham and Mangan at the University of Birmingham, and what does future collaborative leadership actually look like?

  • How can we make sure the knowledge and experience of the current crop of successful collaborative leaders is properly passed on to the next generation?

  • The next cadres of leaders will come from millennials and generation Z – how do we harness the instinctive traits of this talent pool to drive the future leadership agenda?

The answers to the first two questions can be quite easily rationalised through relatively conventional means.  The question about how to inspire the next generation of leaders is exercising us a little more.

We think that the whole concept of branding generations has moved from a handy marketing device into a real ‘thing’.  The workplace is beginning to understand millennials – digital natives who are more comfortable with network power than hierarchical power and who have sufficiently value-based views that the idea of moving from job-to-job will have much more to do with the ethics of an organisation than the salary and fringe benefits (remember those?).

There is a body of work that describes a four-generation cycle of generational archetypes.  There isn’t enough space to go into this now (and we may well return to it on another occasion), but what that work tells us is that as millennials move into an age where they are likely to assume leadership positions (as our current conventions describe them) they will be heroic and hubristic.  (And, generation Z will be sensitive yet indecisive.)  We need to look at the positive aspects of these traits to think through how sectoral consolidation and leadership job design intersect.

We are probably still wrestling with the likely attributes of the subsequent generation or two (Z and alpha), though we do know that few expect to stay in their first job longer than two years, that they will be even more altruistic and that they will be more deferential to elders than the preceding generation and will therefore thrive better in a traditional hierarchy (thus creating potential friction with their millennial bosses). 

Future leaders of place will need to be collaborative systems leaders.  The series of characteristics described in The 21st Century Public Servant work are a very good starting point: municipal entrepreneurship; combining a public sector ethos with commerciality; fluidity across sectors and services; and distributed leadership to the fore.  They will need system translators working at all levels in the ecosystem that they lead.  The generational traits that these future leaders are likely to exhibit dovetail very neatly with the public sector direction of travel: caring, value-driven networkers, builders of consensus, disrespectors of hierarchy.  Conveners, indeed.

The next generation cohorts will have been brought up in a world where change happens incredibly quickly and will likely, therefore, be impatient for change and improvement.  Marry this impatience to the instinctive altruism and you have potentially powerful agents of change and positive disruptors. 

If you are persuaded by our hypothesis, you may share two main areas of concern.

Firstly, in most public sector organisations, there is a gap, in terms of age and experience between the current most senior managers and those who will have to take on leadership-of-place roles before too long.  A combination of factors has caused this for reasons that have been well-rehearsed.  For example, those important force multiplying corporate roles have been sacrificed on the altar of protecting ‘front line services’ thus hollowing out organisational talent.  This has left a smaller number of able leaders and managers who have to focus on increasingly challenging service delivery imperatives.

Secondly, will our potential future leaders survive long enough in the mostly traditional power-based, hierarchical structures?  Loyalty will need to be earned in very different ways than is considered traditional – even though local government is an inherently value-driven sector, those values are being compromised and may create antipathy from millennials and generation Z.

Whether or not those who are shaping the future of public leadership agree with some or all of these views, we are certain that the future leadership of place cannot be left to chance.  Now is the time to identify those talented people who can perform the role, invest in their development and create opportunities to test these skills in the collaborative environment.

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