Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Can we be optimistic about post-lockdown leadership?

Olivia Mohtady

Can we be optimistic about post-lockdown leadership?

This summer, we are treated to a special interview with one of DWC Consulting’s leading Senior Associates, Mike Green. Along with Esther Cameron, Mike is co-author of “Essential Leadership”, an ingenious text giving weight to five key qualities that evidence shows are paramount to effective leadership and change management.

David: Let’s start with your book, Mike, which we continually refer to in our interventions with leaders at DWC Consulting. Can you tell our readers about the five qualities?

Mike: Through our research into what makes an effective leader, we landed on five key qualities that all leaders need, whether they lead organisations or communities. These qualities are essential for driving any positive change, though perhaps in different calibrations depending on the situation and type of change. The combinations and strengths of these qualities may be different in every leader, as some things will always come more naturally. For instance, I have always been strong in the Thoughtful Architect quality, which involves being able to look into the future and appraise the drivers for change; to develop future scenarios and build integrated and cohesive strategies. Then you have the Edgy Catalyser; the quality of being able to spot and name the problem, whether it’s a performance issue or a systemic dysfunction. The Visionary Motivator quality involves developing a vision of the future and engaging people with it, getting buy-in and enabling optimism and motivation (think Gandhi). The Measured Connector quality is perhaps the most widespread among effective leaders and surrounds connecting disparate elements of the system, understanding the wants and the needs of the different stakeholder groups (citizens, end users, consumers, employees, political parties), finding common ground and weaving the different agendas into a wholistic perspective. Finally, you’ve got the Tenacious Implementer, who excels at the project management side of change; planning, implementing,completing and finishing – getting the job done!

David: Thanks for that context! We would also like to locate this as a conversation about leadership and approaching leadership in the context of COVID-19 and race equality. There are some people, like yourself, that have been focused on leadership and management for a long time, well before this virus got us all talking. What is the interest for those people? Let’s start with you.

Mike: Actually, it started with my dad, who had a hard life. He worked for the council and was a dust car driver, then he got this job – the emergency night driver, which was a badge of honour when I got into the union. People used to go to him when they had a problem and he would always represent them. He would be there for injustice and taking the lead against it. He had some power in taking the lead, even though he was not in a position of power.

Once I got into working life, like my dad, the thing that always got me was injustice. It was typically the result of a sheer absence of good management and good leadership. I thought: I can do better than this. I did my training and an MBA to make a difference from that managerial point of view. I became a union rep standing against those people who were “buddies” with management, which I hated. Unfortunately, my nickname was “the terrorist”. What I saw was the need for intervention in organisations, for better leadership to help people. If there is an absence of leadership, or a vacuum, you have to step in. Eventually, you have to take whatever action you can in the formal structures that exist.

Having also, for more personal reasons, trained to be a psychotherapist, there was also that link of seeing organisations as dysfunctional in the absence of leadership, and there was that drive to manage change. Ultimately, if the world is to become a better place, there needs to be better leadership and better management of change.

David: And what was your interest in beginning to write books – writing about change and management? Were there particular issues around leadership at the time?

Mike: Partly, it was about taking the best position in order to have influence. Some people are more extrovert and outgoing. I didn’t have much power as an individual consultant and did not see myself “out there” in that way. So, actually, I woke up one morning and realised that no one had ever written a book on change that bought together all these theories and models. That was my Thoughtful Architect, thinking about bringing this all together. In terms of leadership, I sat down with Esther, and we could not see a model of leadership that really caught the essence in terms of applying leadership, in hundreds of years of literature. So, we thought, let’s do something with our twenty-five years of political and consulting experience. We went back and did some rigorous research into characteristics of effective leadership and we ended up with these five clusters of characteristics.  

David: That’s a great context piece. What do you think has changed in terms of what is required of leaders? Before COVID-19 and now, how do these five qualities fit in?

Mike: Well, the Thoughtful Architect quality dictates that we have to look out into the future and do our strategic analysis into how we approach it. Looking back, you can clearly see that the number one risk to all countries in the last few decades was a pandemic. However, looking at organisations’strategic reviews – there has either not been this awareness, or there were no actions on it. We all know now that a no-deal Brexit is going to be catastrophic, but nobody really thought this through from the start. With regards to COVID, if leaders had exercised the Thoughtful Architect quality in the first place, they would have then moved into their Tenacious Implementer quality – thinking about risk registers, care homes, bubbles of security, care,and compassion.

The biggest thing for me is the Edgy Catalyser bit and how the levels of deprivation of society have now emerged for all to see as a result of the pandemic. In theory, I knew there was a lot of deprivation before the pandemic,but now it is palpable for many of us. And the Edgy Catalyser is all about spotting what is wrong with society – deprivation, pollution, inequality. We are not all equal in our ability to deal with this pandemic. The Edgy Catalyser quality points at these blind spots in our government – holding them to account.And of course, that leads into the fact that people have blind spots because there is a lack of this in these decision-making circles (think Group Think!). And that is where the Measured Connector is needed. If you look at the SAGE committee, those from local health circles and care homes were not included in key discussions. The Measured Connector would consider who should be at the table. Going forward, that is something about the COVID response that should be continued above all else – listening to our society.

David: So, we are where we are now. A lot of your work is in public sectors and local government – what do you think is needed now in terms of these qualities?

Mike: I would say, now more than ever, one needs to err on the side of big government rather than small government. One of the things COVID has bought up is deprivation and discrimination, which needs to become centre stage. I would say the positive in the pandemic is the reduction of carbon emissions and recognition that access to nature is so crucial for health and well-being. People are trying out cycling, for example. There is a realisation that a new world could be made if we tackle some of the inequalities and were build in the opposite of the way that happened during austerity. The way forward is to invest in regeneration and targeted help and resources for more deprived areas. And doing it a new way with a new green deal. In the civil service, they are talking about aligning agendas. Local authorities need to look at hooking their green agendas.

David: There is that aspect of essential knowledge and skills that have come out of COVID. What about issues of race of discrimination, and severe dis-proportionality? What would that mean in terms of leadership styles in local government?

Mike: On the one hand, it’s about reaching out and connecting with people – seriously and not just in a “faux consulting” context. People need to be part of the way forward and be in the room. Even if you are not going to agree about the mechanisms, like the pulling down of statues. It is a pointless thing to be going after the people who were unlawful. We need to think about connecting with lawbreakers. Take the extinction rebellion. We as local authorities may want to squash them as they can be seen as irritants, but we need to bring them in and listen to them. Even though some of us would want street protests to go away, we have to work with people, and it is all about connecting people in a serious way across these boundaries.

Again, it comes back to the five qualities. The Edgy Catalyser creates rage and passion and needs to keep boiling away. Then we need the Thoughtful Architect, because they can see how discrimination pervades all political life and thus develop strategies. Then the Measured Connector engages stakeholders, the Visionary Motivator keeps us all marching forward with a positive vision of the future and the Tenacious Implementer gets things done.  And it goes beyond an electoral cycle. You want a vision of the future – of what communities stand for – whether they are local or national. And you also need a group or task force to get on and be plodding away and doing it. But some of this has to involve tough conversations with people from the community – like the right-of-centre people aligning with fascism – they need to be called out. Your conservative government has to start differentiating itself from the far right.

David: So, more honourable, moral ethical leadership. Should organisations be recruiting people based on values?

Mike: Yes exactly, values-based leadership.

David: In terms of priorities, Matt Hancock said something about thought diversity, and someone else countered with visible diversity. What about the principles around that?

Mike: Well, when you come at it with the Myers-Briggs perspective – the more diversity in the room, the better the decision. It’s going to take you longer to get there, but you have got to have diversity. Women were so under-represented in the top levels of government and organisations, but it took an economic and performance-based argument before there started to be more representation there. And when you do take it from that point of view, it becomes a question of: Give me a good reason why there should not be diversity? It could be about positive action or putting resources into places where under-represented groups have not had the confidence to get to interviews. And if there’s doubt between two people, you want to go towards diversity.

David: How confident are you about the future after COVID?

Mike: I want to believe this is a tipping point. Three or four months ago, John Major (and others I would not necessarily politically agree with) expressed such authenticity and leadership, but then they were swept away, so I was all quite pessimistic. But now, at the local authority level, you have people, from all political persuasions, there who know what the agendas needs to be, and the priorities for change are around discrimination, deprivation and climate change. These must be key going forward. Listening to local leaders I am optimistic that they seem to get this, more so, dare I say, than the current government .



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