Sunday, 6 June 2010

Three juggling balls: keeping leadership in balance in these stringent times

A couple of weeks ago, I was facilitating a leadership development programme for some local government managers and we got to talking about the looming cuts and how it will be to work in this environment. We addressed some difficult issues in that context, not least just how far above the parapets they might want to put their heads right now. This was all within a programme which sought to assist them in finding & developing their authentic leadership style and approach. In other words: how to put their heads above the parapet and be an exceptional local government leader.

Out of the conversation that we had (and I am most grateful to the team of managers, whose contributions, declarations and questions helped me shape these thoughts), emerged for me a model based on three 'juggling balls'. I imagine that many public service leaders are, right now, having to work out just how to throw these three balls around:

Ball number one is professional integrity. Almost every public service leader I meet is highly focused on shaping their contribution to making their part of the world safer, cleaner, healthier, wealthier etc... They have a real concern for helping achieve valuable & robust social outcomes in return for the taxes paid, as efficiently, effectively and elegantly as possible. But in this time of looming cuts, these same leaders are naturally worrying that they will have to implement changes which they know or believe will work in the opposite direction. Maintaining a customer / client / user / citizen focus, professional standards and ethics is going to be huge challenge for many public service leaders.

Ball number two is survival. Alongside this desire to deliver VFM with professional integrity, there is natural desire to survive and stay in the job. Balancing how much to 'play the game' and engage in 'career supporting' actions against how much to engage in 'truth telling' which might be perceived as 'career limiting' actions is a dilemma for some, perhaps for many. Working out how best to challenge the status quo to deliver more VFM without upsetting those who structured (and prospered from) the existing regime is an issue that many public service leaders face all the time. The current economic pressures bring this into even sharper focus.

Ball number three is work life balance. Juggling the first two balls could well be at a cost, possibly a high cost to the leader involved. Preparing for change that will deliver increased efficiency in a way that keeps all stakeholders happy (especially those who have more power than others) may well take a great deal of emotional effort and physical toil. There is a need therefore to pay attention to this third ball and keep a close eye on whether the overall impact on body, soul and personal relationships are indeed worth it.  

I am very interested to know how public service leaders are indeed handling these three balls?

It strikes me that the best jugglers will be: 
  • Clear about their purpose and what their ethical 'bottom line' is
  • Mapping their stakeholder interests shrewdly, knowing who has power and what their preferences are
  • Developing their expertise at challenging people so that they 'wriggle but don't squirm'
  • Paying attention to their own bodies, minds and personal relationships, watching for signs of damaging stress
  • Considering their long term career such and exploring how being in a job is not necessarily the same as being gainfully employed
  • Staying in touch with the people and communities they serve and looking for evidence of harm or benefit
  • Practised in looking at innovative ways to deliver more with less

 And probably many more things.... how are you improving your juggling skills?

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