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Key Elements of Public Leadership

Why collective leadership needs to mitigate the ego-driven flaws of individual leaders

There are some frightening examples in this mornings’ press concerning how individual ego-centric or ill-informed leadership still dominate in senior positions of public leadership with a negative impact for the wider public interest. Having just finished fifty years of public service which began in October 1970 and finished in October 2020 I find this concerning but remain optimistic that tomorrows' leaders can step up to the mark and put the public interest and authenticity at the heart of what public leaders do and how they behave.

On Tuesday evening, Greg Clarke resigned as Chairman of the English Football Association. Earlier that day the Digital, Culture, Media and Sports select committee had called Clarke to account for his controversial involvement in a project.  The accountability issue is irrelevant to this article. Still, the three ‘offensive gaffes[1]’ to the Members of Parliament voiced during the hearing were incredulous.  The words provide an illuminating example that traditional and irrational views still predominate in senior circles notably when appointing non-public leaders to run public sector institutions without any experience of public/social institutional leadership and the need for balance between outputs and outcomes.  Clarke has accepted his wrongdoing in saying that his words were unacceptable, but why did he feel disposed (and, more importantly, at liberty) to say this in the first place?

He was right to resign, but there is a broader systemic issue here.  As Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983) once said, there is only one universal system, and that is the universe; the corollary of this is that humans create all other systems, and the resulting systems are thus fallible.

The second example involves yet another significant resignation reported this morning, that of Lee Cains, who has stepped down as No 10’s director of communications.  Preliminary reports suggest that this was the result of a wave of protests from senior advisers at No.10 over a planned promotion to chief of staff, which apparently included the PMs fiancé, with the protesters citing his pugnacious style.

This is the second example of a human-created system (No. 10) showing human fallibility in empowering individuals to behave in ways that are not conducive to good leadership and which negatively impact the human beings who work within the systems.  Both instances defeat the public interest.  As Barney Ronay said in his Guardian column this morning, “You get the leaders you deserve”.  For Clarke to cumulatively and in rapid succession insult three under-represented groups is not just akin to 1970s sitcoms or satire at best, as Ronay reflects, but can be seen as a form of a pathological condition.  We can make a similar point to the system that supports the government.  Why should an aggressive management (pseudo-leadership) style which draws on belligerent, confrontational, truculent and controversial behaviours be favoured over one that is collaborative and relies upon empowerment, enablement and empathy?   We really need to explore the leadership behind these systems.

Collective leadership is the property of a community and not that of an individual. Such collaborative approaches have the opportunity to mitigate the flaws of toxic individual “management” (I continue to refrain from using the term leadership).  Collective leadership is building in popularity in academic circles, but it has yet to transcend into practice and reality. UK Sport and the UK government are both reflective of complex adaptive systems.  

Within such systems, the traditional inflexible and simplistic approaches to leadership are generally ineffective.  There are times, of course, when individual leadership is required, particularly at times of crisis. Still, the effectiveness of this will only be ensured by a style of leadership that seeks to persuade through evidence-based influence rather than control through uninformed fear. The role of leaders is to stimulate and empower followers rather than directing them through command-and-control processes, as appears to be at the root of the No. 10 resignation.  The role of leaders is also to be authentic, inclusive and empathetic as opposed to divisive and insulting, as the disastrous appearance at the select committee meeting illustrated as does the unprecedented protests of senior advisors at the heart of UK government.  One of the crucial roles for the leadership is to govern individual styles and encourage accountable leadership within the individual who acts as its guardian and to raise the bar of inclusivity, authenticity and decency higher at all times. 


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/football/2020/nov/10/fa-chairman-greg-clarke-resigns-after-unacceptable-comments

Collective Leadership Inventory 2020

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Completing the Collective Leadership Inventory

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