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The way from here

The range and severity of the challenges facing local government means that its leaders can no longer simply keep calm and carry on, writes Janette Rawlinson.

I love the quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland where Alice asks the Cheshire Cat:
“Please Sir, can you tell me the way?”
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t know”
“Then any road will take you there!”

There have been occasions during recent years when we’d be forgiven for not knowing what lay ahead and feeling unable to plan or lead others when we’re unsure where we’re heading. There will be more yet. History is full of similar periods and leaders sometimes emerge, sometimes develop from those who understand the gravity of the situation and sometimes former strong leaders pale into insignificance – disempowered by the change of the status quo.

Opportunities and innovation are the prizes in uncertain times and not all are equipped to cope with flexibility. Such shifting situations call for different attitudes, approaches and culture to the one we’ve become accustomed over the last 8-10 years particularly in the British Public Sector.

So what to do? Panic? Bury our heads in the sand? Carry on as before? Ditch our values? None of these are the answer.

Let’s consider the reality – we know much more detail about the cuts, the proposed reforms, the grim dawning that we’ve lived on borrowed money, reputation and talent for too long and we now must enter a new dawn. We also know more about the cost of employment laws, equality and diversity claims, increasing employer rights, the pension burden and an increasing litigious and compensation culture.

Who will lead us through such challenges?

Around the world we see examples of new leaders, economies and attitudes emerging. In some of the most drastic and tragic circumstances, something inspires people to step up, change others’ beliefs and pulls people together in the face of adversity to a new common good. Witness the Norwegian Prime Minister and Royal family in the recent massacre at Utoya, The inspirational call for calm from Tariq Jahan following his son’s murder in the recent Birmingham riots, the courage of many ordinary people during the ‘Arab Spring’ daring to break from the old order to bring about monumental change.

How many of these were trained for such situations? How many of us would willingly follow such nobility, courage and selflessness in such circumstances? Ordinary men and women displaying great leadership traits in the direst of situations yet those paid and expected to lead as captains of business, public services, regimes and economies suddenly seem more than a little wanting. New role models are out there – we just need to look in different places for them.

Now is a time of revolution and evolution and as ever, there will be winners and losers whether in society, the workplace, education or civic life. We must all be ready to see leadership potential wherever it arises and support those with new ways to help springboard Britain, its businesses and services into a new era. Yes, we could do what we always do – go on awaydays, locked away with the latest government policies, consultation documents, white papers, or plans… arm ourselves with detail, prospective partners or stakeholders to make this happen. We could devise complex ideas to stall progress whilst protecting roles even creating better ones for a select few to the detriment of many or we could do something different….

Trouble is where will we find new ideas? Previously we had career development plans, talent pools, graduate recruitment, new intakes, those improving their education whilst in work, consultants and training providers all agitating in the background to stimulate new ideas. Where are they now?

Before we relied on satellite navigation systems to get from A to B, we planned our routes. We didn’t rely on instant messaging, emails or constant communication channels, we prepared, planned, delivered and reviewed. When pioneers and explorers found unforeseen obstacles, they didn’t turn tail, they found a way through.

For all our smart technology we’re not really talking or listening to those who might have ideas. More meetings are ineffective. Claiming these are our prime communication medium is wasteful when the collective value of people around the table costs vast sums of money with untimely minutes, few ideas, outcomes or actions.

We used to grow up with colleagues, knowing their foibles, strengths and weaknesses, outside work interests, family commitments and personal motivators. How many of us can say that now? We performance manage, appraise, 360 degree review, involve HR professionals, trade unions, on-line assessment tools yet seem to understand less about our people than ever. We command, control, order mandatory training yet many workers are less skilled than those in developing nations. Once we had the education, health, transport and legal systems that led the world – how did we become so complacent?

The disconnect appeared so deep this summer many of us felt frightened and bewildered where society is heading. It’s not confined to Britain – the reaction of Greek people to their country’s bankruptcy, the uprising of thousands of people who’ve never found a voice before is revolutionary. Yet some carry on as before awarding bonuses, failing to move money through the economy, failing to modernise public services whilst the ever decreasing value of global stock markets adds to the mood creating virtual paralysis.

The constant gloom and doom media reporting becomes self fulfilling prophecy, reducing consumer confidence, paralysing workers from devising new ideas, reducing demand for goods and services which means others have to be laid off, etc. etc.

It has to STOP!!! If we passively accept there is nothing we can do, we not only have the wrong people leading, we won’t even know if we’re all heading in the same direction. Chaos will ensue – it wasn’t far off in the summer!

If we idly sit back and let others disregard collective and individual societal responsibilities, we deserve nothing better. We must do better. We owe it to others to step up and do something. Personally I found Tariq’s impassioned plea for everyone to calm down and go home unless others wanted their sons dead one of the most effective and inspiring calls to action (or inaction) I’ve ever heard…. up there with Luther King, Shakespeare or Winston Churchill.

Heartfelt, precise, succinct, full of humanity and generosity of spirit – it dissolved a potentially explosive situation. Not only West Midlands Police but also the people of Birmingham owe this grieving father a debt of gratitude that in his moment of need, he stepped up to a much greater cause calling the youth to remain calm and for our communities to stay united.

What did he do? In the face of adversity, he saw the bigger picture. He laid aside his personal grief to rally others for the greater good and avert further tragedy. We need to follow his example, look up from whatever busies us day to day to see the bigger picture, explore how and what we need to change. Only by doing so can we start to think like strategic leaders.

Strategy is a logic or plan imposed on an organisation or society to do something it wouldn’t otherwise do. It often feels challenging as it diverts our attention away from those areas we do well or comfortably.

ACSeS_6th_Publication_250pxNow is the time to not only think but act strategically… no longer treating symptoms but looking to the overall cause and the best remedial action for the best recovery. We need to rethink and rework models, businesses or organisations not shoehorn in past methodologies or failed visions.

We have to understand the real problems before blindly prescribing cures or taking inappropriate measures. We need to look beyond symptoms then those able to diagnose the reality, prescribe the medicine and persuade others to take it will surely be ahead of the game as present and future strategic leaders. What’s your prescription? Do we keep taking the medicine accepting it’s a bitter pill to swallow or do we radically redesign or explore ideas?

The health of much of our economy and public services depends on the path chosen. We wryly smile at that recycled wartime slogan “keep calm and carry on’. Keeping calm is essential but carrying on as before is not an option. I keep hearing ‘we have to keep delivering business as usual’. I don’t know where such people have been to realise,we need anything but ‘business as usual’.

Time for new paradigms, new ways of working, goals, visions and strategic plans to reexplore purpose, passion and responsibility coupled with courage to think the unthinkable, change behaviour and innovate. Invention is the mother of necessity so leadership must be the mother of crisis management.

Step forward those who want to continue as before, knowing what we know now about the state we’re in… otherwise, gather your wits, talents, courage and innovate. The alternative seems much more painful….

Janette Rawlinson is Principal Consultant at justrealsolutions

This article first appeared in 'A Passion for Leadership & Going Beyond Austerity, published in November 2011 by the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors (ACSeS).

To order or download a copy from the ACSeS website, please click here.