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Which Leadership Style Is Best for the Public Sector?
Source: Public Service.co.uk, by Blair McPherson, http://www.publicservice.co.uk/feature_story.asp?id=21866
Source Date: Friday, January 04, 2013
Focus: ICT for MDGs, Internet Governance
Country: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Created: Jan 04, 2013

A recent report recommended that the public sector needs military style leadership if it is to get through these turbulent times. Blair McPherson isn't so sure...

You wouldn't be surprised to hear that the military has strong leaders but you might be surprised to hear their style of leadership has been recommended for the public sector.

"Strong leaders" is code for they don't negotiate, attempt to persuade or feel the need to explain. These are the type of leaders who use expressions like "turkeys don't vote for Christmas" and "this is not up for discussion or debate"; they are the type of leader who takes dissent as disloyalty.

A recently published report by management consultants Orion Partners recommends military style leadership if the public sector is to get through these most turbulent of times.

But Orion doesn't recognise the type of strong leadership we traditionally associate with the military – it refers to "brain friendly leadership" where leaders get their staff to understand why change is good for them and the organisation. The report claims that there is more evidence of this type of leadership in the armed forces than in the civil service despite Department of Defence cuts of over £4bn and 54,000 redundancies.

Brain friendly leadership does, however, appear to assume that it is possible to demonstrate to staff and the wider community that despite the upheaval of major changes, redundancies and service reductions the end result will be worth it. Presumably this was the thinking behind the government's change of leadership of the NHS for someone who was a better communicator.

I don't know about the armed forces but in the NHS and local government we have long gone past any pretence that the changes are practice led rather than finance driven. Local government is not providing a better service to local people as a result of cutting up to 50 per cent of its budget and the staff working in local government are not more secure in their jobs or financially better of as a result of increased pension contributions and pay freezes. Likewise, local people are not more satisfied with their services now that libraries, swimming pools and day centres have been closed.

We are now receiving reports about the impact of budget cuts on the quality of care in the NHS. So neither staff nor patients are likely to be persuaded that major changes are for the better.

A separate report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) and the Public Sector People Managers Association (PPMA) with the title 'Leading Cultural Change' also talks about the need to take staff with you in implementing major changes.

However, rather than trying to persuade staff that changes are in their best interest or will result in better services they argue that it's about explaining why change is unavoidable, that the task is to make the best of it and that this will involve new ways of working.

The leadership task is one of negation and retaining the trust of the workforce. This style of leadership also requires excellent communication skills, not to sell an unpopular idea but to foster openness and a faith in the leadership.

Blair McPherson author of 'Equipping managers for an uncertain future' published by Russell House. www.blairmcpherson.co.uk and on twitter @blairmcpherson1
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