Developing tomorrow’s leaders today – a modern approach to the leadership conundrum

The whole issue of leadership is never far from our day to day lives. The HMI reports on fire services and police forces continue to raise questions around the sustainability of traditional approaches. There is a clear expectation that a talent management or an effective people strategy should be at the heart of an organisation that is transforming, modernising and delivering through its people.

Indeed, leadership across the wider public sector is an area that the very top of government has in its sights through the launch of the National Leadership Centre. The centre was created by the government to support cross sector leadership, facilitating and supporting people to collaborate on the toughest challenges the country faces.

The scale and complexity of demands on our public services continue to grow. Investing in leadership is an important part of increasing productivity and supporting people to overcome a sense of isolation that often comes with becoming the most senior person of a public sector organisation.

So much has been written about leadership and how to spot, develop and retain it that I am somewhat reluctant to add to the sheer volume of words – just give Google a whirl and see the myriad of results. However, as it is always fun to apply new thinking to an old issue – I will not say problem because I believe that leadership is not the problem but can be the solution – here goes.

Refreshed Approach

In our changing world the time is right for a refreshed approach to leadership. The advance of digital technology, changing expectations from new generations entering the workforce, shifting patterns of work and career development will require a modern approach to recruiting and retaining talent, developing the kind of leaders who can deliver now and for a less and less certain future. Ideas of what leadership is and what leaders do is being challenged with a sharper focus on values and behaviours and a new breed of leader emerging. The old view of a leader as hero, a super-charged individual blessed with certain gifts is being replaced by a more pragmatic acceptance that leadership can be many things, and not always found at the top of the organisation.

We know that the quality of leadership practice across organisations is key to shaping the culture required for a modern world. We need to find ways to recognise and develop leadership in a more modern way. This is less about designing new courses and more and more costly academic qualifications and more about the core skills needed to be effective in our organisations – partnership and collaboration, strategic thinking and influencing, resilience and entrepreneurship perhaps.

Nor, thank goodness, is it about lengthy competency frameworks that set unrealistic expectations – you will all recall the pages and pages of worthy indicators requiring people to tick box after box after box? Look around a bit and you will find these weighty beasts mouldering in some forgotten corner of your organisation. This is more about finding ways to shape the attitudes and behaviours of those who will take our organisations forward by realising the potential and harnessing the contribution of their people.

Of course, there are some key skills and tools we can give managers and leaders to help them get it right. Good induction, support for them in managing performance and resolving issues. All too often however, we call upon HR to compensate for poor managers by writing yet another policy – another weighty document designed for the ‘what if?’ and the ‘just in case’ scenarios borne from lack of trust – more rules and bossy edicts to keep them in line. When all is said and done, if we focus on values and use them to recruit the right people we will need fewer rules and rely on people to manage themselves – indeed we can empower them and set them free.

A very senior manager once said to me: “This empowerment stuff is all very well but what if we empower them and they do the wrong thing?” Ah, there is the rub. That is where command and control – the real thing, not that nasty, stifling, demotivating imposter, micro-management – comes in. Perhaps as modern blue light services we should embrace command and control but through redefining it and seeing it through the eyes of others. Command and control used properly is truly empowering.


“In an agile world, those who can adapt and be flexible will be in great demand and this needs to feature in our assessment approaches too”


Visions and Goals

Good command sets the vision and the goal, the parameters and rules for engagement and then allows people to get on with things. Step back and control the right things, support and encourage, create opportunities for learning and experimentation. That is real development and the basis for talent management today. Letting people take responsibility – actually requiring people to take responsibility – will lead to a far better equipped workforce, less reliant on instruction and rules, more agile and adaptable and able to take decisions.

If we look at where things go right in teams and in organisations, we see good relationships, high levels of trust and openness and genuine engagement in the enterprise. Where things are not working so well, we see poor communication and unclear goals and objectives resulting in people doing different things rather than pulling together.

Good leaders are first and foremost human beings who understand how to inspire and motivate people to come together with a purpose, who can paint a picture of a better future and enable people to achieve it. This is not about some special or particularly gifted individual doing some magic, but an ordinary human being doing their very best to do those things which encourage and support others to do their very best too.

Empowering leaders creates the right conditions for innovation and creativity, for commitment and levels of engagement that deliver results. Allowing people to make decisions, act and think for themselves requires a confident leader, one who knows the skills and capabilities of the individuals and trusts them to do a good job without constantly referring upwards. These leaders also deal with poor performance; addressing it, not ignoring it and challenge and encourage people to stretch themselves and learn from mistakes.

I love this definition from John C Maxwell: “Leadership is not about titles or positions – it is about one life influencing another” because it underlines the human essence of leadership. No matter how demanding our work becomes, no matter how technologically savvy we are it is people, in all their infinite variety, that will make the difference in our world.

Ask people what they want from their leader and they are quite likely to say: “Someone who knows who I am, has an open door, who listens, notices when I get things right and supports me when I get things wrong.”

I suspect they are less likely to say: “Someone who is able to use the human, financial and operational resource to make decisions aimed at building and planning efficient workflows and improve overall organisational effectiveness.” Asking someone what it is like to work for a leader or manager will provide far more useful and meaningful information than any psychometric test ever could – more on that later.

Let us get real here. What really makes the difference is the human interaction, the genuine concern and care for individuals. These are human, not super-human beings. They make mistakes, accept their shortcomings and are willing to admit when they are wrong. We are seeing a more collaborative leadership approach developing, identifying and playing to strengths and a shared responsibility for results and outcomes.

It is no longer the preserve of those at the very top of the organisation and, with changing organisational structures, distributed and shared or co-created leadership are increasingly common. Successful organisations bring teams together based on strengths and skills required to deliver pieces of work or projects. It is less about hierarchy and more about contribution and we are seeing reward systems adapting to reflect this.

“In our changing world the time is right for a refreshed approach to leadership”

Agile Leadership

In an agile world, those who can adapt and be flexible will be in great demand and this needs to feature in our assessment approaches too. It is about how individuals apply learning and adapt skills to new situations rather than what they know and how long they have practiced or where they have gained their experience. Let us hope this sounds the death knell of the traditional psychometric test – coming to that, I promise.

Accepting this more realistic, more accessible definition for today’s leaders should help us develop our approaches to identifying and developing talent. Ultimately, this is more satisfying for all concerned, creating opportunities for learning and gaining experience, promoting the best kind of development. Career patterns are far less well defined today with movement across the organisation more likely than straightforward upwards progression in our flatter and more streamlined structures.

More generic role profiling, transferring of skills within and between disciplines can help to increase mobility and prevent the career cul-de-sacs and dead ends that lead to people taking their talent elsewhere. The focus is on developing the whole workforce, not just the chosen few. Organisations that manage talent well are more flexible, recognising the similarities and shared skill sets rather than boxing people into parts of the business. Openness across the business can create opportunities for progression and development. A move away from the current obsession with technical expertise and increasing acceptance that leadership skills are a primary requirement.


So, what about assessing for this new leadership? Here we are then. I suspect, like me you have done most, if not all, of the psychometrics on the market. Each job application comes with a log in to the usual suspects. My personality, and, if I am honest, most of my behaviours, have not changed since I first did my MBTI back in the mists of time although, thankfully, I have modified some and mellowed a bit with experience. Even the newer Wave and, somewhat spooky, Hogan do not tell me anything I do not already know, much less induce me to make any real and lasting changes. A good interviewer would soon deduce my style and I suspect they are unlikely to change their mind about me, or any other candidate based on a psychometric test.

Would it not be better to put a candidate in a room with some of the stakeholders and staff and see how they get on? Maybe have a staff panel discussion or a presentation to a group of customers or service users. This is more realistic and likely to allow interviewers to see how they relate to the people they could be working with in the new role. Better still, create opportunities for existing staff to shadow, undertake secondments and see what different parts of the business are like.

Building a greater awareness across the business of potential new leaders and those looking for progression will give a sound basis for identifying and developing the leaders needed in the future. Notice the focus here is on leadership rather than technical ability or knowledge. Obviously, knowing what you are doing is critical but above all, willingness to learn, ability to motivate and get the best from people are the hallmarks of good leadership. Those leaders who have inspired me have been those who could engage my interest and make me want to do my best.

Simple really, when you think about it. So, in a modern world, let us focus on what really matters – leaders who lead and support, empower and encourage. Oh, and walk on water of course. Now, I wonder if there is a psychometric for that?


About the author:

Sue Evans is a member of the HR Solutions Hub Ltd Advisors Panel and has extensive experience in working with organisations on developing and evolving leadership. Sue seeks to champion excellence in people management and lead thinking, good practice, innovation and change in HR and OD especially around the development of a People Strategy, which delivers a set of interventions and actions to ensure that people who are at the heart of effective business practice and organisations have the leadership, talent, skills and confidence to be the very best they can be.

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