Busting the myth of leadership (4)

These blogs try to dismantle the myth of heroic leadership roles in public sector organisations. I have argued that this myth has been promoted by governments seeking command-and-control management in order to create the conditions for imposing austerity and what have turned out to be savage cuts. I use the term ‘myth’ to recognise that leadership qualities that have been so promoted – qualities such as ‘vision’, ‘inspiration’, ‘expertise’, ‘fearlessness’, ‘change orientation’ and so on – have masked the true and universal role of ‘leaders’ to oversee the managed decline of the public sector and to impose compliance (‘following the vision’) on an otherwise resistant workforce. 

In my last blog I noted that Peter Drucker, an early and surely the most influential management theorist, expressed dismay towards the end of his life at the unassailable and cruelly persisting organisational model of the pyramid – with power, remuneration, status and influence concentrated at the top. Drucker saw organisations as promoting communal values and reflecting a moral order. As citizens, we rarely choose to live under an autocratic or even dictatorial political regime which suppresses or dismisses individuality and individual creativity – so why would we want to see it in an organisation that belongs to the citizen and is paid for by the citizen? 

Quite apart from this challenge to democratic, citizen values, these semi-feudal arrangements – an all-powerful Vice Chancellor or CEO or Chairperson – are frequently based on an egregiously mistaken view of professional knowledge and professional culture. Here, I will take policing as the example. As I often do, I will start with an illustrative story.

In the 1990s I was part of a team implementing a root-and-branch reform of police culture, following up on Lord Scarman’s scathing review of policing in the wake of the street disturbances of the early 1980s (Toxteth, Brixton and elsewhere). I visited a police station in Sheffield, chasing up the experiences of young police recruits who were moving through our radically reformed probationer training system. The new training was teaching the recruits to be evaluative and critically-reflective of policing as they encountered it – asking the question, not ‘what does it mean to be a police officer?’ but, rather, ‘what does it mean for me to be a police officer?’ Recruits knew that they were being trained to manage their own professional learning and development throughout their career, to shape their practice around the organisation’s policies and to treat their experience as a perpetual learning opportunity. I spoke to a supervising sergeant about one recruit. “Dull as ditch water – can’t get a peep out of him – he just does his job, does what I ask and goes home at the end of the day.” Intrigued, I arranged to talk to the recruit. Why so quiet? “I’m waiting until I understand the sergeant, what his values are – then I’ll know how to respond to him.” He went on, “I think he has only got one year of policing experience.”  But he’s a sergeant, I say, I suspect he has about 10 or 12 years’ experience in the job. “Yes, but I think he did his first year and has just repeated it ever since.” As I moved around, talking to recruits like this I heard stories of questionable – sometimes corrupt – practices which the recruits were mostly keeping at a distance.

But here’s the question you should be asking at this point. Why, in the first place, were we given access to policing at this depth by Chief Constables who are little known for their love of transparency or critique? Well, we knew, after two years of observing and analysing policing organisation and culture, that the individual with least knowledge of policing practice was (still is) the Chief Constable. She or he is simply too detached at the top of the pyramid, there are too many layers of opaque defensiveness and self-reporting for knowledge to seep up. Any rank structure or rigid hierarchy is characterised by ‘creative compliance’ – appear to follow orders, but carry on regardless with custom and habit. Paradoxically, though we were a threat to the existing order of policing, we also came with the promise of access and transparency for Chiefs. Our reporting would tell them what was happening on the ground. It was only once the new critical capacity of recruits was fully understood that the Chief Constables pulled the rug from this new system. 

So here we are – still with faith in police ‘leadership’ to have the vision, control and knowledge to wreak change to the widely accepted dysfunctional culture of policing. It will not and cannot. Change simply will not be mandated, no matter the sanctions. Chief Constables – all such organisational leaders – find themselves managing systems they can little understand. They cannot see, let alone lay hands on, the levers of change. 

Here is the fundamental misunderstanding of professional knowledge. Professional knowledge – that from which the organisation’s quality arises – is based on the independence of the practitioner, their situational insight which allows them to manage the interface with the citizen and service user. Professional knowledge is made up of insights into how to respond creatively (and democratically) to daily issues, dilemmas and confrontations. It is the individual police officer who really sets policing policy on the basis of what they actually do – and the same goes for teachers, nurses, social workers, council workers and others. It is the practitioner with the wisdom of having learned from their and their colleagues’ experiences who are the true theorists of the organisation. Like that recruit in Sheffield.

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