Busting the myth of leadership (3)

This is a series of blogs questioning the ‘leadership revolution’. The belief in the transformative effect of strong leadership is a relatively new idea, and one that is at odds with evidence and experience. Power and responsibility concentrated at upper levels of an organisation is corrosive of both effective action on the ground, and of democracy itself.

Here’s another leadership story. 

I was evaluating a pobationary service. Towards the close of our work there the cuts were announced as a result of the 2010 Osborne austerity package. The service was hit with a 30% cut. And it turned out this was merely preparing the ground for the eventual privatisation of this and all other probationary services. How would the 30% cut be accommodated? The Head of the service, a prominent and innovative thinker nationally, called a one-day conference of all workers, from probation officers and their managers to cleaners and catering staff. A hall was prepared in ‘cafe style’, groups of 8 – 10 people on single tables. The Chief announced the situation and immediately invited the service Finance Officer to explain how the cuts were to fall, where the constraints lay and what might be the softening opportunities. Each table was then invited to think creatively about how the cuts might be best managed to protect the service, its people and the quality. The Chief was there, she said, to learn and be advised.

I left before the day was over and returned to my university. That day, as all days, was saturated with the gloom of persistent cuts, the anxiety of jobs on the line, and the looming infeasibility of maintaining the quality of what we did. A continual current of meetings were called to receive news of where and how the cuts would fall. No discussion. No appeal. No consideration of realities or preferences. Priorities were set centrally. We were an audience.

Two styles of leadership. I asked the Head of probation why she did this. “How else can I do it?” she said. “I don’t know how the organisation works.”

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