I suspect I’m not the only person in a senior leadership job who regularly feels like a fraud: am I doing enough to justify my position? What vital opportunity or threat have I missed? Am I being strategic enough?
Ask most people who profess to know about how to do senior leadership and what makes a good leader, and they will often talk about ‘being strategic’. Taking a step back, getting a ‘helicopter view’, seeing the bigger picture.
There is truth in this: often as a senior leader you are in a unique position to have an awareness of what every part of an organisation is doing, which means you should be able to tell whether the parts are fitting together well or not and where the whole thing is heading. If you get bogged down in the detail of a single part, you risk losing that perspective and using up your time and energy on one part of an organisation whilst the others drift.
There are some problems with being strategic though. Firstly, we live in an increasingly unpredictable and chaotic world. However many steps back you take, there are huge changes, like Brexit, which the vast majority of the most powerful leaders did not see coming, and which even now it is happening, feels entirely unpredictable. We live in an age of social movements which bring great shifts in power for good or ill, but which the establishment cannot ignore and cannot always ‘manage’.
So the strategic skill of analysing and building complex systems is becoming less useful. You are as likely to make the right moves by being able to hear and move with fast-moving cultural changes. Savvy senior leaders talk about creating movements, but in reality, those movements are more likely to be started by a personal story and a hashtag, than a research and piloting budget. Working with the world in this way starts with building a shared values base for an organisation and requires closer and more communicative relationships with a much broader range of people.
The trade-off between strategic overview and a relationship with reality has always been under-estimated. For some years now, public service leaders have been talking the language of personalisation, person-centred care, communities and empowerment. Many of them have meant it. Few though, have been willing and able to translate those arresting visions for a more human model of public service into the collective activities of large organisations which continue to be run by middle managers who are performance-managed on balancing their existing budgets and ensuring their teams carry out a narrow and familiar range of tasks. The vision stays unengaged with the real-world pressures.
I see that disconnect when local leaders become passionate about developing their Shared Lives provision, but that passion dissipates as it meets the cynicism and stasis of their just-about-surviving teams. A mentor some time ago suggested to me that complex strategic plans, particularly if supplied by outside consultants, were always works of fiction. Instead, he recommended having a clear view of who you are as an organisation, which in turn would enable you to spot the opportunities to take, and the challenges to respond to.
I’m increasingly convinced of this.
You cannot of course, know who you are as an organisation, if all you have is an overview of it. You have to be prepared to get close to it too. Senior leaders who want their visions to become reality, have to be willing to get out of the helicopter and to work alongside colleagues on ground-level system change. And leaders who want to be sure that what their organisation writes about their values are real, must not only live those values in person but also spend time with people on both sides of its front line.
Step back from a large organisation or system, and instead of achieving a clear, strategic vision, you may fail to see the faulty processes which make the vision impossible to achieve, or fail to hear what people really experience. Bankrupt values will sink an organisation as quickly as bust budgets. The bullying culture within some (highly-stressed) NHS organisations which loudly proclaim their caring nature is a few tweets away from becoming the next public service scandal.
This calls for a new kind of leadership, which is as interested in the small pictures – people’s individual experiences – as the big one. That kind of leadership cannot be provided to a large organisation by a single person; it has to be distributed, and responsibility can only be distributed if power is too. In the past, some big organisations have appeared to be rigid about process and flexible about values; organisations which feel smaller and more personal will be better placed to be the reverse of that.
No leadership strategy can make the world less chaotic. But organisations which feel and behave more like movements than bureaucracies give themselves the chance of starting the next dramatic change, rather than trying to catch up with it.