A New Style of Community Leadership for Complex Networks

By Lorraine Ford

Picking up on Greg Fisher’s blog post regarding the distinction between power & formal authority, I did some related work recently at Henley Business School with Mike Green on local strategic partnerships – a concrete example of networks operating in the public sector.  We looked at how local political leaders use their power in the flatter, less hierarchical structures which such partnerships constitute.

Leadership styles for complex environments

What we were trying to find out was whether, for the purposes of partnership working, politicians were able to, & did, adjust their leadership styles.  This is necessary because although in traditional hierarchies formal power clearly lies with the person at the top of a single organisation (in the case of local authorities, the political leader & chief executive), in partnerships formal (& informal) power is in principle widely dispersed across & within the partner organisations.  Where it resides will vary over time as different activities are undertaken.  This then has a bearing on how a leader needs to operate if they want their undertaking to realise its full potential, because they no longer control many of the vital resources, either formally or informally, & can only influence how others use their power.

So this type of structure requires the leader to acknowledge & respond effectively to one of the fundamentals of the application of complexity theory to public networks, which is that social systems are not mechanistic, neither do they operate in isolation: no individual, no matter how powerful on paper, can single-handedly grasp what will work best, still less command the resources to implement their own “solution”.  A key purpose of partnerships should be precisely to generate better policy from the cross-fertilisation they offer, by utilising wider community resources more effectively.

To understand better what actually happens, I conducted in-depth interviews with the political leaders of six partnerships around England, as well as with their public, private & third sector partners.  The research is reported more comprehensively in an article in July’s Public Money & Management (link), but some key points are covered below.

Some complex features of partnership-working

The enormity of the challenge that political leaders face in this highly-complex environment quickly became clear: realising a valued outcome for the community requires the melding together, at least for specific purposes, of a kaleidoscope of different organisational cultures, values & motivations, working to a range of sometimes contradictory performance indicators.  And there may be significant political tension between the direction of the targets (informing the public sector partners’ performance indicators) & the motivations of the local authority (for example where the local authority’s controlling party is not the party of government, but they are partnering public organisations funded & controlled by central government).

To make things worse, the window of political opportunity is often all too brief, with a politician’s hold on power subject to the ongoing electoral cycle.  In authorities with elections in thirds (where elections for one third of the authority take place three years in every four) this is particularly acute.  For networks, such precarious political control can be very bad news, because a trusting environment is vital: in the absence of a clear control mechanism such as a hierarchical structure, trust becomes the glue which holds the network together, but does an elected politician have the time to develop that trust across the partnership?  Possibly not, particularly if they have to start by rebuilding bridges which have been blown apart by a divisive electoral campaign.  And partners’ desire & need to engage may be limited if they expect a new leader along shortly.

Making it work

So, how do politicians get round all these problems to try to make things work?

Some simply don’t manage it of course, it’s a pretty tall order.

But those that do prove themselves to be very capable leaders, skilled at sensing the environment, observing, reflecting, then adapting their behaviour as necessary.  In this article I identify three key patterns of capable leadership which emerged out of the research.

1.  Inspire & include

Sometimes they have to take the lead, for example by laying out a compelling & inspiring vision & setting the partnership’s broad agenda.  (In our research, where no suitable individual had done this, the partnership was unfocused, with much discussion & frustration but no positive outcomes).  But they must do this in such a way that partners are, & feel, included in the process, not imposed upon.  This means leading partner opinion, not dismissing it, which in turn demands respect for others, self-awareness & consensus-building skills – the kind of leadership which inspires & motivates others, offering the opportunity to draw from a wider resource-pool than the leader themselves directly oversees.  Some have termed this facilitative leadership.

In our partnerships, interestingly, the political leader’s democratic credentials were an important factor contributing to the leader’s acceptability, notwithstanding consistently low turnouts at the polls & the current climate of disrespect for politics & politicians.  Partners still deferred to the mandate, provided the leader demonstrated other facilitative leadership behaviours.

2.  Engage & support

Another important quality & skill-set contributing to this facilitative style is the tenacity & action-orientation necessary not just to think great thoughts but to get them implemented.  Without this, the strategy languishes on the flip-charts, & the partnership delivers little of value to the community.  When partners have to go back to their own organisations & make difficult trade-offs, allocating their own budget lines to partnership activities, it soon becomes clear who truly shares the vision & buys into the strategy.  So it’s also the job of the facilitative leader to ensure commitments are actioned.  They can do this not only by developing a sense of joint enterprise which galvanises the partners into delivering on their promises, but also by being energetic in their support of partners, focusing on the changes they need to implement, even guiding them through the processes if that is appropriate.  Effective partnerships are still uncharted territory for many & sometimes spelling it out is what’s needed.  In one of our partnerships, for example, local authority officers were seconded part-time to a public sector partner to support & guide.

3.  Lead by example

Nuts & bolts change applies equally at home, of course, which is where the leader’s personal commitment & courage tells.  There are huge cultural implications for local authorities in partnership working: for example, instead of acting on direction from line managers, staff at all levels need to show (& be empowered to take) leadership (cf the need to create an enabling platform rather than articulating end-points, noted in Greg’s post on the Tao of Leadership), in order to respond to the constantly shifting partnership environment.  But this raises questions about the respective traditional roles of appointed officers (the executive) & elected members (the politicians) & with it issues of public accountability, which need careful resolution as they arise.  To what extent are officers able to design & implement policy themselves & what do they need to refer back to their political masters?

I noted above that having the time to develop trusting relationships can be a significant factor in making the partnership work.  In just the same way, working through this kind of organisational development requires commitment & time, yet time is not on the side of the elected politician.

Concluding thoughts

I offer these reflections as one illustration of how our current systems, political & administrative, can conspire against making public sector networks a reality & what it takes to rise to the challenges they present .  I’m sure many others out there also have experience of the ups & downs of complexity in operation which would be good to hear.  Ann Griffiths, in her earlier post on this blog, very ably demonstrated some of the data, budget & technical issues associated with partnership-working & joined-up government.  Like her, I’m going to finish on a positive note:  in the course of the research I encountered several examples of authorities where strong partnerships are developing & bearing fruit.  This happens where a favourable set of elements (e.g. strong leadership skills, enabling political environment, clear community priorities, engaged partners…) successfully combines to countermand the opposing forces (e.g. fragmented politics, poor leadership, short-term or narrow-minded partners, not enough time to see things through).  The nature of the outcomes & the combination of elements look different in different communities, because there is no single “right” model, of course.  But it’s clear that what is needed above all is facilitative community leadership of the highest calibre, to configure & reconfigure as necessary a suitable, feasible & acceptable sum greater than the individual parts of a community’s resources.

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