Saturday, 10 October 2009

Explaining Dissatisfaction with Senior Leaders

I'm faced with a little problem on a major research project we are conducting, and that is how to understand why staff in a public sector environment find their senior leadership teams to be disconnected, more interested in politics and government targets and not particularly focused on clients. It's also the subject of a 'provocative' commentary I'm writing about on the need for a leadership 2.0 for Skills for Health in the UK.

As you can imagine, senior leadership teams see the problem quite differently from so called followers. They see themselves as caught up in having to resolve, often conflicting demands from a variety of stakeholders, including the increasing need to meet public value objectives, and having to make tough decisions about resource allocation, which inevitably clash with the single-minded aims of powerful professional groups such as physicians and other clinical grades.

I’ve tackled this issue before in an earlier blog on a report Keith Grint and I did on the 'wicked problems' of leadership in the public sector for the Scottish Government. In that report, the issue of distributed leadership (DL) as an important new(ish) theory was raised as a possible panacea, and such is the head of steam behind it in organizations such as the NHS and other public sector bodies in the UK and elsewhere, it needs to be treated seriously, whatever it might mean. Peter Gronn, an ex-colleague at Glasgow University, has written extensively about this issue, and he often provides the starting point for a stimulating conversation. And he certainly did that at an excellent symposium at the British Academy of Management in September on this issue, which attempted to get under the skin of DL through four insightful presentations that have caused me to re-visit my recent thinking on the subject.

Jackie Ford from Bradford University pointed out that DL has come to the rescue of our unrealistic implicit theories of hero managers in the public sector, point out from her research what most public sector senior managers often feel, i.e. frustration and inordinate levels of stress because they have so little autonomy as a result of agendas being set for the over which they have no control. Leaders, as it were, become arenas for competing narratives and expectations, which they often seek to deflect by laying off responsibility to the centre, or, increasingly look to the language and promises of distributed leadership to others throughout the organization to help them resolve.

This was pretty much the message of Jon Gosling and Richard Bolden from Exeter following their recent research into leadership in Higher education. They found that distributed leadership existed in the sense that certain responsibilities and decision-making authority were delegated but only within bounds, and that power remained at the top, often linked to control over key resources. They argued that there were four dominant discourses of leadership and DL – as an alternative to management and administration (re-labelling), as a bridge between previous collegial styles and new theories of executive behaviour, as a reality (or appearance of reality) towards encouraging responsible followership, and as a rhetorical device to draw attention to some problems and solutions but mask others.

Annie Pye, also from Exeter saw ownership as an important missing link, reflecting Barbara Kellerman’s call for responsible followership as a way of thinking about distributed leadership, often operationalised in simple ways such as going the extra mile to help others or offer suggestions on how to improve things. However, in the private sector at least, this was less likely to be the case (unless you worked for a John Lewis organization that shared responsibility, ownership and rewards among all staff) because of the increasing gap between upper and lower eschalons.

The session was opened by a good colleague of mine, Paul Iles, from Leeds Metrapolitan University. His contribution was to set out some useful two-by-two matrices for comparing and contrasting the various features of leadership. Two of the most useful were to see leadership in terms of being a planned or emergent phenomenon and essentially an individual or collective phenmenon, with celebrity leadership and tradition leader development typically planned and individualistic while DL was typically emergent and collective. One of the best examples of this perspective of DL is work by David Buchanan and colleagues on the UK healthcare system, demonstrating that, under certain circumstances, 'no-one in charge' can lead to highly positive outcomes critical areas such as cancer care. However, another matrix has provided me with a perspective to criticise much of this work - that is to see leadership and the assumptions underpinning it either in rational-objectivist- unitary terms or in political/ pluralist terms. The first assumes that organizations among other things are essentially characterised by common cause and common spirit, amenable to rational solutions such as leadership and sophisticated HR. The second is more traditional in industrial relations teaching, seeing organizations made up of legitimate but competing interests, which frequently come into conflict, and are usually only resolved through compromise and negotiation to allow everyone gets something of their aims.

I've recently used this last perspective to provoke an arguably more realisitic discussion on the potential of leadership in healthcare to incorporate doctors into management, a popular solution in the UK NHS but one fraught with difficulty. This is because many hold a pluralist perspective and seek to remain a 'loyal' but necessary opposition to ensure that patient care is not submerged in the welter of politically-inspired changes and financially-driven targets. More of this in a later post. The main point, however, is that much of leadership's popularity is rooted in optimistic but innappropriate assumptions about organizations. Criticisms of this arguably misplaced faith in unitarism used to be the recieved wisdom thirty years ago in a more pluralist Britain before Thatcher, when opposition to power was sees in a more positive light, and when social engineering through culture management, HR and the 'cult of the customer' to discipline employees was less prevalent. Are we about to return to these pluralist assumptions with calls for a new leadership 2.0? I don't think so, but the zeitgeist is changing. The 'romance with leaders' is definitely on the wain - even in football, the subject of a forthcoming post.