What Just Happened in UK Politics?

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Professor Richard Bolden shares his views with the International Leadership Association (ILA).

Blog post orginally posted on the ILA wesbite.

Over the past seven weeks the world watched on as Liz Truss crashed and burned as Prime Minister of the UK. After just 45 days in office — two weeks less than the election process through which she was appointed and, if you take out the period of national mourning for Queen Elizabeth II, shorter than the average shelf life of a lettuce (Economist, 2022, Daily Star, 2022) — Liz Truss unceremoniously stepped down as leader of the Conservative Party.

There is no shortage of journalists and political commentators writing their own accounts of what’s happened but, in this blog post, I would like to reflect on this as a leadership researcher and educator. To do this, I will consider the case from individual, organizational and societal perspectives.

An Individual Perspective: The Fall of Liz Truss

Without doubt, the most common way in which Liz Truss’s time in office will be analyzed is in relation to her own shortcomings and failures as a leader. The benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing and there are many people coming forward to express the concerns they had about her character and suitability for the role of Prime Minister.

Over the past few days, I’ve heard her described as “tin eared,” “naïve,” “arrogant,” “stupid,” “talentless,” and many more things beside. Whilst these may or may not be a fair assessment of her qualities, they beg the question of why on earth her candidacy was supported by so many ministers and members of the Conservative Party if this is how they felt about her. Surely there was some evidence of this, or an attempt to assess her suitability, before she was given the biggest job in UK politics?

I’ve always been dubious about the motivations of anyone who would wish to become PM or President given the immense responsibility and public scrutiny such roles carry. Indeed, in a reverse Catch-22 type scenario, anyone ambitious enough to put themselves forward should perhaps be deemed unsuitable and hence ineligible for the role. There’s plenty of research evidence on the psychopathology of leadership and the risks of narcissism, greed, and corruption amongst senior leaders in all walks of life. Such toxicity is clearly not healthy, but it’s a mistake to lay the blame wholly on the individual leader her/himself — indeed we may need to take a closer look at ourselves.

The psychodrama of Westminster over the past weeks, months, years says perhaps as much about our own relationship to leaders and leadership as the individual protagonists themselves. In a recent book chapter I co-authored with Lucie Hartley, drawing on insights from her time as CEO of a drug and alcohol charity, we reflected on the addictive nature of leadership (Hartley & Bolden, 2022). While individual leaders may become trapped in destructive cycles of addictive behavior, the causes and consequences are not entirely of their own making. The tendency to romanticize leadership and the heroic qualities of successful leaders disguises the fact that we frequently place people in situations that would turn even the most admirable individual into something else.

While I have no doubt that Liz Truss willingly and enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to be Prime Minister, she did so at a time of extreme turbulence. Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam (2005) coined the term the “glass cliff” to describe the circumstances in which female leaders and leaders from minority backgrounds are disproportionately more likely to be appointed to senior leadership roles in times of significant risk. While there are a number of possible explanations for this trend, it means that these individuals are placed in particularly precarious situations where the likelihood of failure is at its greatest. As the political commentator Andrew Marr stated in relation to the unraveling of Liz Truss’s government: “It was triggered by the immediate causes: bad political judgement, naiveté about markets, personal arrogance and cliquishness. Truss is simply not good enough — not shrewd enough in judgement, not persuasive enough as a communicator — to be prime minister. But this is the failure of an idea that would have collapsed even had Britain been led by better politicians” (Marr, 2022).

While I have no desire to present Truss as a victim, she became the embodiment of a set of ideals promoted by certain factions of her Party that were fundamentally out of step with the realities of the markets and wider society. She stated that in her commitment to growth she was prepared to do things that might be considered unpopular. Modeling herself on Margaret Thatcher, she claimed to be “a fighter not a quitter” and “not for turning”… until the markets and public opinion forced her to U-turn on pretty much everything she’d put in place during her time in office. We expect a lot of our leaders — including the ultimate act of self-sacrifice when things turn bad (Grint, 2010).

An Organizational Perspective: A Divided Party

The Conservative and Unionist Party of Great Britain is one of the main political parties in the UK. It represents the right-of-centre political interests and agendas and, within England at least, faces its main opposition from the left-of-centre Labour Party. There are currently 357 Conservative ministers, representing around 55% of all members of the House of Commons. The government comprises a Cabinet of senior leaders appointed by the PM and a large group of “back bench” members of parliament (MPs) elected to represent the interests of their local constituencies. An oppositional form of government is maintained, whereby, the party in power sits opposite the opposition parties in the main chamber of the House of Commons and legislation and policies are debated and voted on by members.

The origins of the UK structure of government dates back to the 13th and 14th centuries, with current arrangements largely unchanged for over 100 years. Unlike typical organizations, the PM’s authority comes from the mandate gained through General Elections, which occur every 4-5 years, where the public get to vote for their preferred party/candidate. These are supplemented by local elections to approve changes in representation between the national election cycle and by occasional national referendums on key issues, such as the UK’s membership of the European Union in 2016.

Within such an environment, the ability of the PM to instill a sense of “confidence” and maintain “discipline” is key. While MPs usually vote along party lines, within a democratic system of government they have the freedom to vote in the way they believe best serves the interests of the electorate. There are occasional exceptions to this, such as the vote on fracking on the evening of Wednesday 19th October 2022 that descended into chaos when Conservative MPs were informed that it was a “confidence vote” and they were expected to vote “no” to a motion to ban fracking no matter what their personal opinion on the matter or the views of their constituents. Despite the attempts of party “whips” and senior Cabinet members to encourage (force) members to vote as directed, 32 (nearly 10%) did not register a vote.

The events of the past few weeks have highlighted deep divisions within the Party that have existed for many years. Rather than all Conservatives sharing a unified set of beliefs, values, and priorities it is a loose affiliation of divided factions. These are the issues that David Cameron was trying to resolve when he called the national referendums, firstly on Scottish independence in 2015 and then membership in the EU in 2016. He hoped that once they had been decided through a public vote, MPs would fall into line and follow the guidance of the PM and Cabinet. In reality, however, such votes — particularly Brexit — seemed to further cement divisions within the Party and have led to widespread resistance and challenge across the different sub-groups — fueling, in large part, the churn of senior leaders, including three Prime Ministers and four Chancellors of the Exchequer (responsible for managing the national budget) in the last few months.

Commentators suggest that the Conservatives need to find a “unity candidate” to replace Liz Truss, someone who can lead and engage people from across the whole party, but such people are in short supply. The contenders — Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordant, and (the former PM) Boris Johnson — are all divisive given that they represent the interests of particular stakeholders rather than the whole party… not to mention the wider country. While Sunak, the runner up in the previous election campaign, has now gained sufficient support to be named the new leader, he has a significant challenge ahead in engaging those who hold him personally responsible for the departure of Boris Johnson and the drama that has since unfolded.

At the end of the day, leadership is about building, rather than burning, bridges.

The social identity approach to leadership, outlined by Alex Haslam and colleagues (2020), highlights the need for leaders to be seen to represent the interests and identity of a collective and to be doing it for “us.” Application of these ideas to the COVID-19 pandemic by Jetten et al. (2020) goes further, suggesting that (1) leaders need to represent us, and in a crisis “us” becomes more inclusive; (2) leaders need to be seen to do it for us, and there is no place for leader exceptionalism; and (3) leaders need to craft and embed a sense of us, and this creates a platform for citizenship.

This mirrors evidence from the Center for Creative Leadership on the nature and importance of “boundary spanning” leadership — defined as “the ability to create direction, alignment, and commitment across boundaries in service of a higher vision or goal” (Ernst & Yip, 2009). Direction, alignment, and commitment are far from evident within UK politics at the moment, and with its absence, the sense of shared purpose and capacity for collaboration needed for effective leadership and governance have evaporated. As the long-standing Tory MP Charles Walker stated following the chaotic vote on 19 October — “I’ve had enough of talentless people putting their tick in the box, not because it’s in the national interest but because it’s in their own personal interest” (Walker, 2022).

A Societal Perspective: Uniting Around a Shared Purpose

To understand Liz Truss’s spectacular failure, however, it is not sufficient to just consider individual and organizational factors. The speed and scale of her demise was largely shaped by factors beyond the direct control of either her or her colleagues.

She came into her position at a time of significant economic and geopolitical turmoil. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and a number of related factors (including the legacy of COVID-19) had driven up fuel costs and impacted food production, which had a direct impact on the cost of living for people across the UK. There were urgent calls for support in helping businesses and working families as well as those already receiving benefits, to cope with the rising cost of bills for fuel, food, and a wide range of essentials. Rapid action was required to put systems and processes in place before the winter in order to minimize the adverse effects.

The policy advocated by Liz Truss and her allies was one of establishing the UK as a high growth, low tax economy. Described by some as “Singapore on Thames” and others as “Trussonomics” — the approach is founded on the idea of cutting red tape and taxes to drive economic growth. This “trickle down” approach proposed that cutting taxes for the wealthiest would benefit those on lower incomes by mobilizing spending and job opportunities. This vision was core to Truss’s campaign to be elected as Party leader and was presented as confident and optimistic in the face of her opponent, Rishi Sunak’s, campaign that spoke of hard times ahead and the need to reign in public spending. When 141,000 Conservative members voted on whom to elect as party leader in September 2022, 57.4% chose Truss over Sunak (Statista, 2022), quite probably because of the more inspiring vision she set out of a post-Brexit Britain.

While those Conservative party members who voted for her, however, may have been persuaded by her argument, the “markets” were far less sympathetic — particularly when her (then) Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, announced a “mini budget” on 23rd September 2022 that included £45 billion of unfunded tax cuts. This “spooked” the markets and led to a rapid drop in the value of the pound, forcing the Bank of England to intervene, increasing interest rates and buying government bonds. The crisis in the financial markets was fueled, to a large extent, by the lack of communication and engagement between Truss and Kwarteng with the business and financial sector (including the Bank of England and, indeed, their own MPs) in advance of the announcements. The unusual decision not to check projections with the Office for Budget Responsibility (established to give independent advice on the UK’s public finance) further undermined confidence — leaving many to assume that the government’s plans were not based on robust analysis and would leave a large gap in the UK economy.

Together, these factors demonstrate the importance of building consensus and support with key stakeholders beyond the immediate team/organization before launching a significant shift in strategy. Without this, the perceived competence, credibility, and legitimacy of leaders can quickly evaporate, making it very hard (or impossible) to regain sufficient support to move forward. The series of U-turns on the policies within the mini-budget, while essential to rebuilding some kind of stability within the markets, whittled away what remaining authority Truss held such that there was no option than to eventually resign.

Where Next?

Today we find ourselves turning to a new leader of the Conservative Party — someone who will also take on the role of Prime Minister. Recent events illustrate the ambivalent relationship to leadership we have in the UK (Bolden & Witzel, 2018). We appear to love and hate our leaders in equal measure — to put them on a pedestal and then topple them when they fail to behave in ways, or to deliver, what we expect (despite the warning signs that might already exist or the incredible demands they face).

While the primary focus of the current crisis in UK politics is “leadership,” we may, perhaps, be advised to spend more time thinking about the importance of “followership.” While each of the contenders for the role of Prime Minister had their own group of loyal advocates, to be successful Rishi Sunak will have to gain the support of a diverse range of stakeholders — including his own party, business and financial services, the public sector and the wider UK population — and demonstrate how he will represent and deliver against their needs and aspirations rather than those of a narrow clique. At the end of the day, leadership is about building, rather than burning, bridges. It is about articulating and working towards a shared purpose that unites, rather than divides, those around them. Ultimately, this might require those in senior leadership positions to put aside their own personal ambitions in the pursuit of a genuinely collective endeavor. As with the apocryphal quote of a Roman Senator claiming “there go my people… I must go after them, so I can find out where they want me to lead them!” (Witzel, 2016) — the key to political leadership is to follow the “will of the people.” Whether or not anyone in the current UK government has the willingness or capacity to do this is yet to be seen.

References and Further Reading

  • Bolden, R. and Witzel, M. (2018) ‘Dis-United Kingdom? Leadership at a crossroads’ in S. Western and E.J. Garcia (eds) Global Leadership Perspectives: Insights and Analysis, London: Sage Publications, pp 161-169.
  • Bolden, R., Hawkins, B., Gosling, J. and Taylor, S. (2011) Exploring Leadership: Individual, organizational and societal perspectives.  Oxford: Oxford University Press. – Second edition to be published in March 2023.
  • Daily Star (2022) LIVE: Can Liz Truss outlast a lettuce? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sm-RE95lKJ0
  • Eardley, N. (2022) How big-bang economic plan and political turmoil sank Liz Truss, BBC News, 20/10/2022 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-63335671
  • Economist, The (2022) Liz Truss has made Britain a riskier bet for bond investors, 11/10/2022 https://www.economist.com/leaders/2022/10/11/liz-truss-has-made-britain-a-riskier-bet-for-bond-investors
  • Ernst, C. and Yip, J. (2009) Bridging Boundaries: Meeting the Challenge of Workplace Diversity, Leadership in Action, 28(1), 3-6.
  • Grint, K., (2010) The Sacred in Leadership: Separation, Sacrifice, and Silence, Organization Studies, 31, 89-107.
  • Hartley, L. and Bolden R. (2022) ‘Addicted to Leadership: From crisis to recovery’ in Morgen Witzel (ed.) Post-Pandemic Leadership: Exploring solutions to a crisis, London: Routledge.
  • Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S. D. & Platow, M. J. (2020). The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, influence and power, 2nd Edition. London & New York: Psychology Press.
  • Jetten, J., Reicher, S.D., Haslam, S.A. and Cruwys, T. (2020) Together Apart: The Psychology of COVID-19. London: Sage.
  • Kuenssberg, L. (2022) Tory leadership: Why would anyone want to be prime minister now anyway? BBC News, 22/10/2022 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-63343723
  • Marr, A. (2022) The death of global Britain, New Statesman, 19/10/2022 https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk-politics/2022/10/andrew-marr-death-global-britain 
  • Ryan, M. and Haslam, S. A. (2005) The glass cliff: evidence that women are over-represented in precarious leadership positions, British Journal of Management, 16, 81-90.
  • Statista (2022) Percentage of votes won in the Conservative party leadership elections in the United Kingdom in 2022, by round.  https://www.statista.com/statistics/1323720/uk-conservative-leadership-leadership-elections/
  • Walker, C. (2022) I’ve had enough of talentless people, BBC News, 19/10/2022, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-politics-63320605
  • Witzel, M. (2016) The first paradox of leadership is – leadership! In R. Bolden, M. Witzel and N. Linacre (eds) Leadership Paradoxes: Rethinking leadership for an uncertain world. London: Routledge.

Dr. Richard Bolden has been Professor of Leadership and Management and Director of Bristol Leadership and Change Centre at Bristol Business School, University of the West of England (UWE) since 2013. Prior to this he worked at the Centre for Leadership Studies at the University of Exeter Business School for over a decade and has also worked as an independent consultant, research psychologist and in software development in the UK and overseas.

His research explores the interface between individual and collective approaches to leadership and leadership development in a range of sectors, including higher education, healthcare and public services. He has published widely on topics including distributed, shared and systems leadership; leadership paradoxes and complexity; cross-cultural leadership; and leadership and change. He is Associate Editor of the journal Leadership.

Richard has secured funded research and evaluation projects for organisations including the NHS Leadership Academy, Public Health England, Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, Singapore Civil Service College and Bristol Golden Key and regularly engages with external organisations. 

HIV Programme Management and Service Delivery in Zimbabwe

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Image: Professor Peter Case distributing PPCL degree certificates to successful graduands in Nyanga District, Manicaland, Zimbabwe

CBL’s Professor Peter Case recently returned from a research field trip to Zimbabwe, where he helped run a series of workshops linked to a project funded by a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant and being delivered in collaboration with researchers at University of California, San Francisco. The project, which Peter co-leads, is entitled ‘Optimizing Stakeholder Operating Models for HIV Prevention in Zimbabwe’ (OPTIMISE, for short) and has been running since June 2020. It aims to assist the Ministry of Health and Child Care (MOHCC) to improve HIV prevention programme management and service delivery. The workshops took place between 19th September and 1st October, involving health professionals from Matabeleland North, Matabeleland South and Manicaland provinces.  The current project is due to conclude at the end of this calendar year, so the trip involved data gathering on project outcomes/impacts as well as consolidating the changes to service delivery that OPTIMISE has helped implement.

Using participative action research as the main approach to leading change, the intervention seeks to integrate HIV prevention services (which are typically funded by a variety of external donors) and move them forward in a more effective and sustainable way in relation to MOHCC strategy. District-level research groups highlighted key improvements to service delivery that had been achieved to date and discussed the results of a ‘user research’ presented by the UWE/UCSF team. The events were a great success, with strong endorsements for the OPTIMISE project coming from the MOHCC. One particularly moving example of the way the work has been expanded by teams beyond the immediate HIV priorities concerned significant improvements to maternal mortality rates in Hwange district which, prior to OPTIMISE interventions had suffered the highest level of maternal deaths in the country. Thanks to implementing OPTIMISE change methods, in the past year the rates have fallen from nine deaths per year to just one.

The national director the MOHCC HIV Programme, Dr Murunguni, and other senior ministry officials were present to hear and comment on the progress updates, as were Provincial Medical Directors and other senior administrators. Peter also attended a partnership meeting in Harare convened by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation at which he and the OPTIMISE team discussed future projects and continuity of the work with the Clinton Health Access Initiative, Population Services International and the MOHCC. One outcome of this discussion will be UWE’s direct involvement in an attempt to seek a national scale-up of the OPTIMISE work supported by funding from the UN Global Fund for AIDS, TB & Malaria.

Integral to the OPTIMISE project has been leadership capacity building for 19 healthcare professionals enrolled on CBL’s Post-Graduate Certificate in Professional Practice in Change Leadership. All 19 students have now successfully completed the degree and a handful will be attending the CBL graduation ceremony in November. Whilst travelling to the various districts, Peter had the privilege of distributing degree certificates to many of the graduands. The module has been delivered in collaboration with a local HE provider, the Women’s University in Africa, and is contributing significantly to the strengthening of leadership and management capabilities of Zimbabwe’s HIV Programme staff. Peter would like to acknowledge the roles played by Katie Joyce (PPCL ML), Dr Priscilla Mutuare (WUA tutor and CBL AL) and Dr Greyling Vijoen (lead local PPCL tutor and BLCC visiting fellow) in contributing significantly to the success of this programme.

Case Studies at Developing Leadership Capacity Conference 2022

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(Image sourced from www.cre8rel8.com/we-believe)

The Bristol Leadership and Change Centre is hosting the 12th Developing Leadership Capacity Conference (DLCC) on the 12 and 13 July 2022 with some fascinating contributions based around the theme:

‘Leading to Care – Foregrounding Health and Well-being in Leadership Development and Education’.

Over the coming weeks we’ll be sharing some of the abstracts from the contributors to give you an idea of the depth and variety of sessions that are available to attend online over the two-day conference. Register for the free DLCC conference HERE

Case Studies presented from 10:30 – 12:00 on Tuesday 12 July 2022

Leadership Learning and Development for Global Health: A Case Study of Capacity Building in Southern Africa

Authors: Peter Case1, Rudo Chikodzore2, Precious Chitapi1, Amanda Marr Chung3, Jonathan Gosling1, Roly Gosling3,4, Katie Joyce1, Priscilla Mataure5, Greyling Viljoen1

Affiliations: (1) Bristol Leadership & Change Centre, University of the West of England, UK; (2) Ministry of Health and Child Care, Zimbabwe; (3) Institute for Global Health Sciences, University of California San Francisco, USA; (4) Department of Disease Control, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK (5) Women’s University in Africa, Harare, Zimbabwe

For the past eight years, Bristol Leadership & Change Centre (BLCC), UWE, has been collaborating closely with the Malaria Elimination Initiative (MEI) to improve the management and leadership of healthcare programmes in Vietnam, Zimbabwe, Eswatini and Namibia. Most recently, UWE has been working with MEI (a research centre based at the University of San Francisco, California) and the Ministry of Health and Child Care (MoHCC) on a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation project aimed at providing better integrated and more sustainable HIV prevention services in Zimbabwe. An integral part of our work in malaria and HIV prevention spaces, has been training programme staff in the use of participatory action research and learning methods, typically with a focus on identifying and addressing operational challenges.  The challenges that inhibit health service delivery can often be addressed by improving communication and coordination, clarifying lines of resourcing and accountability, maintaining motivation, providing adequate training and supervision, and removing bureaucratic silos. The training programmes, which sit alongside our health system change interventions are accredited via a Postgraduate Certificate in Professional Practice in Change Leadership (PPCL) awarded by the University of the West of England. The PPCL module has been delivered successfully in Zimbabwe (2017-18) and Namibia (2019-20) for cohorts of malaria control programme health professionals and, since 2020, UWE has been collaborating with the Women’s University of Africa on a third run of the module for twenty professionals working for the MoHCC in Zimbabwe.

CathArtic spaces: Bringing lived experience into leadership development

Elinor Rebeiro & Chris Hayes, Co-founders of Create Relate Ltd.

“Art is an expression of the human condition. It is a reflection of our memories and experiences, which are more often than not rooted in the world around us.”

(Vijayan et al 2022, p1)

Holding onto pain, grief, trauma is known to have a negative impact on our well-being, both mentally and physically (CIPD 2022, Vijayan et al, 2022). In our ‘private lives’ we are encouraged to open up, to talk to someone, to share how we feel (NHS 2021, Mind). This release of emotions can be known as catharsis (Vogel and Flint, 2021) But how does this play out when we are at work? Our work place is a place where we are meant to bring the best of ourselves, to maintain a control over our emotions continuously. Yet we often spend longer at work than we do at home and the work that we carry out can be emotionally charged with pressure, meeting overload, navigating complex relationships and the pressures to succeed – assuming that you buy into the duality and separation of ones home and work ‘self’. The pressures placed upon people during and following the pandemic have also brought about traumatic experiences.

The exploration of catharsis as a way to access deeply felt experiences is one we have been immersed in for some time. Using cathartic images as a way for people to be able to safely explore how they feel about the lived experience of their work lives is at the heart of this exploration. Understanding the shadows and challenges in our everyday lives offers up the opportunity to make sense of ourselves and each other. Cathartic spaces also allow us to recognise that we are not alone and enable the opportunity to make deeper more relational connections with other people. But, what happens when this learning is used for organisational and leadership development understanding? What happens if Leaders are not provided with the opportunity to also connect deeply to the challenges and shadows of their own experience? When we work within, what Herron calls a “non-cathartic society” (Herron, 1998) we cannot tolerate in others what we cannot tolerate within ourselves. This disconnect between repressed felt experience and the observing of and feeling of others experience can make it too hard to explore, too hard to accept or embrace and can lead to the rejection of this felt experience either in the form of denial of its ‘truth’ or through a recognition of the experiences, followed by a refusal to share back the learning for fear that the content is too sensitive, too raw to be made sense of, or be embraced as learning that could support how leadership happens.

Using organisational examples and drawing on our work creating cathartic spaces within organisations we seek to explore the opportunities, often unappreciated, that this type of space and the learning and understanding that comes from it can bring. We will also highlight common and possibly damaging shadows that come from not taking this learning seriously. As a final point we will explore how cathartic spaces can catalyse a rethink into leadership development in its wider context.

Bristol Leadership & Change Centre 2021 Highlights

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As one year comes to an end and another begins, we take a look back on 2021 to share some of the highlights from Bristol Leadership & Change Centre and the interesting projects members have been involved with.

Research Highlights

Professor Peter Case secured a prestigious Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant (in collaboration with the Malaria Elimination Initiative research centre based at the University of California, San Francisco) to assist the Ministry of Health and Child Care (MOHCC) in Zimbabwe to improve HIV prevention.

Dr Gareth Edwards, Dr Harriet Shortt, Professor Doris Schedlitzki from London Met University and Dr Sylwia Ciuk from Oxford Brookes University were successful in securing funding from the British Academy of Management (BAM) and the Society for the Advancement of Management (SAMS). The £145,000 fund will enable them to research leadership and language through visual representation over the next two years. They are hoping that this piece of research can encourage leadership studies and other organisation and management disciplines to take language more seriously in their research with the objective of becoming more inclusive.

Katie Joyce, Senior Lecturer in Organisation Studies completed her first Principal Investigator role following a successful research bid. She project managed and chaired the workshop: ‘Digital Methodologies – principles and practice of researching online’. The bid was approved by the Society for the Advancement of Management Studies.  The project team also included Dr Harriet Shortt, Prof Katrina Pritchard (Swansea University) and Craig Lennox (RBI input and event intern).

Professor Carol Jarvis, Dr Hugo Gaggiotti, Dr Selen Kars and Kay Galpin  were lucky enough to receive Higher Education Innovation Funding for The Unleadership Movement, to run a series of collaborative workshops in 2021 to start to understand more about the dimensions they’d identified; Paying it Forward with Kindness; Living with Imperfection; Catching the Wave and Confident Collaborating. The Unleadership Movement has gone from strength to strength in 2021 – from an idea to a movement! Since beginning with curiosity about leaderly practices in the pandemic and reflecting how both the state of exception and our consequent returning to a sense of normal they have learned so much this year.

Nottingham & Nottinghamshire Integrated Care System (ICS) is leading the way on integration to close the gap in health and wellbeing outcomes against a backdrop of limited finances, increasing population numbers and increasing numbers of people living in ill health. To support this, partners are working as an Organisation Development (OD) Collaborative across the whole system to develop well supported, informed and involved leaders and services that have the ability to influence the wider system into working effectively with partners across health, social care and the voluntary sector to provide joined up patient/service user care. In preparation for the introduction of ICS’s on a formal footing in 2022, Professor Carol Jarvis, Rob Sheffield, Professor Richard Bolden, Selen Kars and Margaret Roberts were commissioned by NHS Midlands Leadership Academy (Leadership and Lifelong Learning) to conduct a pre-diagnostic study. This research seeks to develop recommendations, grounded in a robust investigation of current and best practice, that will support the implementation of a sustainable, system-wide community of practice, with an emphasis on cultural development; service improvement/innovation methodologies; and leadership and in support of providing joined up patient/service user care.

Another research highlight for Professor Richard Bolden in 2021 was working on a project for the NHS London Leadership Academy into the experiences of healthcare workers through the pandemic and the implications and learning for leadership practice and development. The project was delivered entirely online and involved a diverse team of staff and visiting faculty including Anita Gulati, Addy Adelaine, Charlotte von Bulow and Conroy Grizzle. They also worked with a professional artist, Julian Burton from Delta7, to bring the participants’ powerful stories to life. Whilst the report is not yet in the public domain it is informing discussions within and beyond the Academy about how best to support and develop individuals, organisations and the wider system now and into the future.

Teaching & Learning

Professor Peter Case supported the delivery of a two-day face-to-face training workshop in August 2021 for nineteen Zimbabwe healthcare professionals enrolled on the FBL Postgraduate Certificate in Professional Practice in Change Leadership (PPCL). The students are working as part of the Bill & Melinda Gates funded project co-led by Peter to restructure and improve HIV/AIDS prevention in Zimbabwe. The PPCL module is designed to enable students to combine their studies with experiential workplace learning.

A teaching and learning highlight for Professor Richard Bolden was setting up and running the Leadership, Complexity and Change in Healthcare module for the Advanced Clinical Practitioner Degree Apprenticeship programme. This has now been delivered to over 60 participants in two cohorts (May-June and October-November 2021) and will continue as a core module on the programme. He delivers it alongside Gina Burns and Rob Sheffield, as well as colleagues from the Faculty of Health and Applied Sciences.

Katie Joyce has enjoyed a number of teaching highlights in 2021, including module leading the ‘Professional Practice in Change Leadership’ (PPCL) which was an excellent example of highly effective teamwork and partnership working across continents, despite complex challenges faced due to the Covid19 pandemic. Katie has also been working in collaboration with HAS, leading on the coach education aspect of a trailblazing undergraduate programme titled: ‘Student Healthcare Leadership Programme’ (SHLP).  Students on this programme are allocated to a coach (a senior healthcare leader), and undertake x3 one hour 1:1 coaching session with the aim of developing their leadership capabilities.  Developed by the Council of Deans of Health in 2016 and funded by Health Education England (HEE), UWE are one of the first universities in England to run a health-specific coaching scheme of this kind.

Dr Harriet Shortt and Katie Joyce together ran the first online ‘Personal Mastery in Leadership’ module, during a pandemic AND getting lovely feedback!

Dr Arthur Turner‘s teaching highlight is working with Dr Karine Mangion on the ILM Coaching and Mentoring Certificates at Level 5 and Level 7. Karine has brought a huge amount of expertise and laughter to these vocational qualifications, which over the past 8 years have had over 70 registered at any one time.

Publications

Inspired by the pioneering Finnish ‘Team Academy’ approach, UWE Bristol was among the first to introduce this programme to the UK. Our award-winning BA (Hons) in Business (Team Entrepreneurship) is an innovative degree course that allows students to develop practical skills by working in teams, creating value for organisations, forming ventures and ultimately learning how to manage themselves to become effective problem-solvers. A new Routledge book series outlining case studies and research from the Team Academy around the world has recently been co-edited by Berrbizne Urzelai Lopez De Aberasturi, one of the Team Coaches at UWE, and provides valuable insights for those looking to find out more about this approach. There are four books in the series, including: Team Academy and Entrepreneurship Education, Team Academy in Practice, Team Academy: Leadership and Teams, and Team Academy in Diverse Settings.

Along with Professor Jonathan Gosling, Professor Peter Case published a set of open access resources in collaboration with the Malaria Elimination Initiative (MEI) and the University of California, San Francisco. The resources are entitled LEAD: Leadership & Engagement for Improved Accountability & Delivery of Services Framework  and comprise a set of guidelines and practical tools for Ministries of Health and advisors to assist with the improvement of malaria healthcare services. It is the product of work that Peter and Jonathan have been conducting with MEI for the past seven years in low- and middle-income countries across the globe.

Dr Jenna Pandeli, Senior Lecturer in Organisation Studies, had her research featured in an article in the Financial Times titled ‘Orange Collar’ workers are not the best solution to labour shortages. An excerpt of the article follows. Jenna was also delighted to discover that her UWE colleague had read the article in the Spanish Financial Times whilst travelling in Barcelona!

‘Much of the work that does take place inside prison workshops, even for private sector companies, is poor preparation for life outside. Jenna Pandeli at the University of the West of England spent 10 months observing and interviewing male prisoners involved in privately contracted prison work such as breaking up electrical items for recycling, putting stickers on parcels and sorting through waste. The work was mostly boring, monotonous and low-skilled, she found. Indeed, these jobs were disappearing from the world outside the prison gates because they were being offshored to cheaper locations. In England and Wales, the minimum pay for prisoners who work is just £4 a week.’

Dr Charlotte von Bülow and Dr Peter Simpson were successful in securing a new book publication

With Palgrave Macmillan which will be coming out in Spring 2022.  Offering fresh insights for leadership students, researchers, and practitioners on the challenges of working in uncertainty, the book offers a novel perspective on Negative Capability as a way of being. Each chapter explores an aspect of Negative Capability through the accounts of leaders and managers who had the courage to explore this way of being and share the stories about its powerful impact. Ultimately, this book explores how a practice of attention can lead to new ways of understanding the role of purpose, leisure, and passion in leadership practice. They’ve received some wonderful endorsements.

Dr Arthur Turner, Dr Gareth Edwards and Dr Harriet Shortt had their paper published: “Reflections from the field (mountain, cityscape and park): walking for management development and links to being-in-the world, belonging and “Ba”” in the Journal of Management Development.

Arthur, Gareth and Harriet (plus a colleague, Catherine Latham from South Wales) worked together for seven years to pull together data that they had been collecting from programmes and interventions where we had been utilising aspects of walking in the development of leadership. They selected, together, three different theoretical stand-points and discussed in their paper the reasons why they thought walking and adult leadership development went together so well. 

Events

During 2021, The Unleadership team were able to work with some interns who have helped them to develop their identity on social media and to create some engaging animations and videos to share their ideas. What has been really refreshing is the rich stories their collaborators have shared with them during their six online workshops, from describing how they can ”let the human spirit into our workplaces” to making time in our communities and our lives to be true the values we hold dear. They also enjoyed sharing some learning at the Collective Leadership for Scotland Campfires event in September with an international audience where they heard more ideas about connection, bravery and communityship during adversity. It’s been inspiring to hear how thoughts about leading, not leadership – have resonated with others; some who have felt that they have found a new language to talk about what they are doing, taking leaps of faith, driven by the desire to make a difference and to connect with others without encapsulating their experiences into a leader-follower dichotomy.

Towards the end of 2021, Bristol Leadership & Change Centre hosted two online events before and after COP26. The first event in October, two of our visiting faculty members – Charlene Collison and Professor Jonathan Gosling discussed the opportunities, and likely challenges, of COP26 in securing real progress on climate change.  Drawing on extensive experience in a range of contexts, the speakers will shared their thoughts and reflections on what a successful COP needed to enable and set society up to deliver.

The second event in December began with a conversation between Jonathan Gosling and Steve Martineau, a member of the team appointed by the UK High-Level Climate Action Champion for COP26 Nigel Topping. Steve began by discussing the background to this work and the role of the Climate Action Champions in representing the voices of business and other communities in the discussions. He illustrated this by characterising the national governments as vertical systems, with business, finance, etc. as horizontal systems that intersect these at a global level. Following this discussion, Charlene Collison shifted our attention to the impacts of climate change on local communities and individuals around the world. She did this by highlighting that even with the agreements at COP26 we are on track for a 2.5oC increase in global temperatures – well beyond that experienced through human history.

External Engagement

Visiting faculty member Charlene Collison, Associate Director, Sustainable Value Chains and Livelihoods, Forum for the Future.Charlene leads multi-stakeholder collaborative initiatives across a range of sectors and themes, including directing the Cotton 2040 initiative in which she launched a climate change risk assessment tool for the global cotton sector and ran a series of workshops with cross sector participation to understand the risks, what the implications might be along the value chain, and priority actions the sector needs to take.

In 2021 Professor Richard Bolden and colleagues completed Phase 4 of the local evaluation of the Golden Key programme, which compiled evidence from a range of initiatives to support system change for the provision of services for people with multiple disadvantage in Bristol. They also supported the successful bid led by Bristol City Council to secure funding for a further three year’s work as part of the Changing Futures initiative from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government as well as the National Lottery Community Fund.

Perspectives on Leadership in Global Higher Education

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Reposted with permission from the Advance HE blog, 16/12/2021


Over the past two months, as part of our scoping study for the Advance HE Leadership Survey, we have run 11 two-hour online roundtables on the nature and purpose(s) of leadership in contemporary higher education (HE). More than 100 individuals have contributed, representing the views of early career academics, established academics and professors, professional service directors and managers, senior executives, staff and organisational development practitioners, various representative associations, and HE support and funding bodies. While many contributors have been UK-based we have purposely engaged members of an international HE community and captured perspectives from multiple country settings including Australia, Bahamas, Bahrain, Egypt, Greece, Hong Kong, India, Jamaica, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates.

Together these conversations have provided rich and revealing insights into a turbulent and changing HE environment. It has been humbling to hear the scale of the challenges faced by HE staff at all levels and colleagues across the HE community, and equally inspiring to witness their commitment to the social value and societal benefit of higher education. The roundtables have been emotional, cathartic and energizing – a moment for reflection within ever more crowded diaries, and an opportunity to listen and to be heard by peers with compassion and empathy.

Unsurprisingly the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a backdrop to much of the conversation and has amplified many long-standing concerns. Issues of funding, workload, diversity and inclusion, sustainability, government policy, marketisation and the growth of hybrid and digital working are key priorities and concerns impacting global HE. Such concerns, however, are not easily resolved and their complex interdependencies highlight the difficulties of successfully navigating this shifting and uncertain terrain.

Within each roundtable we spent time exploring how values and purpose shape leadership in HE and, whilst participants articulated a strong set of ethical principles, they acknowledged that these are not always recognised and rewarded within an increasingly competitive and target-driven sector. Many of the discussions evoked a sense of existential crisis and the need for a much stronger sector-wide debate about the purpose and contribution of HE in a changing world. Torn between the demands and expectations of a range of powerful stakeholders there was a sense that some institutions, and their leaders, may potentially be losing sight of what really matters.

We concluded each roundtable by collating thoughts on the skills, competencies and behaviours required of HE leaders now and into the future. Common themes that emerged included courage, compassion, authenticity, agility, resilience, communication, decisiveness and the ability to build and sustain trust. Whilst many of the points referred to leaders in formal positions there was recognition of the need to develop and nurture collective or shared leadership at all levels.

As we work through the transcripts we are reminded of the pressing need for critical discussion about HE leadership during a time of global challenges and look forward to sharing emerging findings at the dissemination and engagement events in February 2022.

Authors: Richard Bolden, Professor of Leadership and Management, UWE, Bristol; Richard Watermeyer, Professor of Education, University of Bristol; Doug Parkin, Principal Adviser for Leadership and Management, Advance HE; and Katy Outhart, Membership Services Executive, Advance HE

HIV healthcare staff in Zimbabwe begin PG Certificate in Professional Practice in Change Leadership

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Dr Greyling Viljoen and Dr Prisciplla Matuare (Women’s University in Africa), supported remotely by Professor Peter Case, recently delivered a two-day face-to-face training workshop (18-19 August 2021) for nineteen Zimbabwe healthcare professionals enrolled on the FBL Postgraduate Certificate in Professional Practice in Change Leadership (PPCL). The students are also working as part of a Bill & Melinda Gates funded project co-led by Peter to restructure and improve HIV/AIDS prevention in Zimbabwe. The PPCL module is designed to enable students to combine their studies with experiential workplace learning.  

The PPCL programme forms an integral part of a project entitled ‘Optimizing Stakeholder Operating Models for HIV Prevention in Zimbabwe’ – OPTIMISE, for short. The project, which has been running since June 2020 and is due to conclude in May 2022, addresses health HIV service delivery in Manicaland, Matabeleland North and Matabelend South provinces. The aim is to support and capacitate the Ministry of Health and Child Care (MoHCC) in working with stakeholders to develop and implement sustainability plans. This involves reviewing progress on the MoHCC strategy and facilitating the process of establishing goals, priorities and action plans. It also strives to create the necessary leadership coalition to drive change in the health service.

There is a diverse cohort of students on the PPCL module representing different levels with the system: from senior MoHCC directors through to front line staff working in health facilities. Students undertake theoretical studies supported by materials on Blackboard and are trained in the application of the project’s LEAD methodology. There is also a significant ‘supervised practice’ element of the course whereby students are supported in applying their learning.  

Thanks go to Katie Joyce (module leader) and UWE’s Faculty of Business and Law Professional Development Team for their excellent support in delivering the PPCL module.   The main collaborating partners for this work are the Malaria Elimination Initiative (University of California, San Francisco) Population Services International and the Clinton Health Access Initiative.

Home-working during Coronavirus – using the corners of our home for work, rest and play

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Back in 2017 Dr Harriet Shortt, Associate Professor of Organisation Studies at UWE Bristol Business School, wrote a piece for Work Wise UK about how the commute – be it on a train, a bus or in a car – offers an important space for reflection and escape. She talked about how the commute can be a space ‘in-between’ in which we can momentarily break away from the multitude of identities we seek to maintain in contemporary society, and temporarily find a sense of sanctuary in a working world characterized by change and fluidity. The commute, therefore, offers a ‘liminal space’ in which to momentarily dwell – a liminal space being one that is on the ‘border’, a transitory space somewhere ‘in-between’ where we can suspend social expectations – and just press pause. She also reflected on the liminal spaces of the workplace – like corridors, stairwells, corridors and toilets. Places in which, as her research shows, are usually used to escape the visibility of the office or shared workspace and become important territories for private conversations, quiet reflection, and inspiration and creativity (Shortt, 2015).

In her guest blog post with Work Wise UK last week, she talks about the loss of these spaces and how we can find them again in our current conditions working from home, which for many of us also includes juggling home-schooling with work.

Since the Covid-19 crisis and the lockdown, for many workers these spaces have vanished. We aren’t commuting, which is great for the environment and for a whole host of other reasons, but I wonder if there are some of you who are missing the space the commute created between work and home – that liminal space for reflection, decompression or planning. And, of course, many of us are not in the office, so those corridor conversations, those watercooler moments, those snatched minutes in a toilet catching up with a colleague are gone. All these informal micro-interactions at work that are so vital in the everyday life of workers have, for the time being, disappeared.

Instead, many of us are working from home. We have set up workspaces almost overnight and our homes have become workplaces and meeting rooms, classrooms and gyms, places of worship and places to rest. These changes in our domestic environment have taken some adjusting. We have had to negotiate with partners and children about how our home spaces are used, for what purpose and when, we’ve had to compromise our sense of privacy and open up our homes as personal backdrops on Zoom calls, and as the earlier blog from Stefanie Reissner and Michal Izak shows, we have had to think carefully about how we establish, manage, and re-adjust our work/ home boundaries.

All this transposing of work life into the home and sudden, rather dramatic mass shift to working from home has made me think more about the organisation of space at home, and in particular, the liminal spaces of the home. In all my research projects in both public and private sector organisations over the past 15 years, the significance of liminal space has always emerged – whether it be the cupboards in which hairdressers find respite from the visible work they do, the toilets where open-plan office workers go to have private conversations or the stairwells that nurses use to catch up with each other away from the wards. But what are the liminal spaces in our homes, how are they being used in the current crisis, and do they have any value? As a researcher of organisational life, I’ve seen and heard various stories over the past 8 weeks from UK workers adjusting to working at home, and I’ve had my own experiences as a mother and knowledge worker juggling full time work and home schooling a 5-year-old, and the corners of our homes do seem to be significant in a number of ways…

Firstly – liminal spaces for new working practices. I have spent a number of years researching the work of hairdressers working in hair salons and over the past 8 weeks or so I have been struck by how innovative some in this industry have been at adapting to working life at home, using social media (mainly Instagram) to do so. What has been notable are the uses of liminal spaces in their homes, that are now appropriated as new workspaces. For example, one celebrity hair stylist in London is seen in a walk-in wardrobe demonstrating an easy up-do (wife as model). Another hair stylist in Wales is pictured in a hallway by the mirror demonstrating how to cut a little boy’s hair (son as model). And another stylist in London is filmed in a toilet demonstrating a guide to toning your hair at home (self as model). These new workspaces are allowing them to still work, still connect with clients, but perhaps help them avoid exposing parts of their homes to others and somehow this protects their privacy. As we’ve seen in recent weeks, the new Twitter account ‘Room Rater @ratemyskyperoom’ has been set up to comment on and rate the backdrops and private homes of the rich and famous as they Skype and Zoom in the media. As such, the privacy of our homes has been comprised by new working from home practices and so we might reflect on how the liminal spaces in our homes might offer an alternative to putting our more dominant spaces – kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms – on display for all to see.

Secondly – liminal spaces for privacy and rest. The privacy issue is one that we have not really talked about during this crisis. The big focus, naturally, during isolation has been countering the feelings of being alone or separated, and as Reissner and Izak advised in their blog earlier this week, we need to stay connected. But just as I would argue that overly open, collaborative workspaces sometimes forget the need for private, quiet space in their designs, for those of us as home in lockdown with partners or families, we might think about how important it is to find just a few moments alone for rest, reflection and respite. One Bristol-based entrepreneur I am working with on research project text me a photograph of her on the roof of her house and said:

This is the only place I can get some rest…some peace and quiet. This is where I can just breath for a minute. It’s a beautiful view and a lovely skyline, all the trees and rooftops. I love being up here, I might do this more often’

Another young mother in Bath, who works in the public sector and is working from home with 2 small children said:

‘I find myself just sitting on the stairs to get five minutes peace. If I’m in the kitchen, the kids want snacks. If I’m in the living room I’m working. I just sit on the steps for a few minutes and get a bit of down time’

So, it could be suggested that liminal spaces are helping us, just as they do in the office, to find private quiet moments of respite from family, technology and being on show. The corners of our homes, or, as above, the rooftops and stairs, are being used in the practice of self-care and wellbeing during Covid-19.

And finally – liminal spaces for play. I have seen how liminal spaces are being appropriated for play during our home-based lockdown. My 5-year-old daughter has been at home with my husband and I, like many other children, for the past 8 weeks, and the den-making has been rife! My daughter has made a den on the stairs, under the stairs, under the table in the dining room, in the hallway, on the landing, on the kitchen step. Dens have been built in every nook of our house over the past few weeks and having spoken to a few ‘working-from-home-mum-friends’, it seems I’m not alone in noticing this. One working mother in Oxford told me:

‘Yes, I’ve noticed my kids have been making dens all the time during lockdown! Behind the sofa, under a tree in the garden, all over the place – but never in the actual playroom that’s specifically designed for them and all their stuff!’

This has made me reflect on children’s needs for privacy and ownership over space. They compromise all the time in relation to space, with their bedrooms perhaps being the only haven they might have in a home, and even then for the most part parents place restrictions on these places – no food, no drink, tidy up, make your bed. It is no wonder that children, whilst in lockdown with their parents who are desperately seeking their own spaces and managing boundaries for work/home-life, are claiming snippets of space. This is perhaps a child’s response to seeking solace, rest and privacy, much like the entrepreneur on the roof or the working mother on the stairs discussed above. And of course, this only serves to highlight how liminal spaces, used for privacy and individual territory, are important to everyone, not just grown-ups in the workplace.  

So, working at home during Covid-19 has shed some light on the liminal spaces of our homes and how they are emerging as unexpectedly useful. As a response to the lockdown, we have seen how the territories on the margins of the dominant spaces in our homes (those we have defined uses for, like living rooms or kitchens), are now in regular use in new ways. Spaces like cupboards, hallways and stairways have always been there, in our peripheral vison, used mainly for transitioning through the home, but they now come into full view and full use – for work, for rest and for play. In our post Covid-19 world we might reflect on the potential for these spaces; how might they be used differently? What value do they have and for whom? And how might they feature when we’re working at home?

These are all reflections and food for thought on home-working during the Coronavirus crisis. I invite you to reflect on how you are using the corners of your home; what have you noticed about where you are working? Have the stairs and landings featured in your working day and if so, how? And what value do they have? As Bachelard (1958/1994, p.136) reflected, corners are symbols ‘of solitude for the imagination’ – what spaces in your home offer moments for imagination when you are home-working?

Leadership, Complexity and Change: Learning from the Covid-19 pandemic

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Guest blog: Richard Bolden, Professor of Leadership and Management and Director of the Bristol Leadership and Change Centre

What a difference a few days make… Perhaps it’s the sunny Spring days after a long, wet winter; the dog walks spent chatting with teenagers who would normally be off at school; the unexpected free space in my diary with no expectation that I should be in the office; or because so much of what we take for granted has changed so suddenly.

At the time of writing we are in the fourth day of the lockdown called by the UK government to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus. It’s been a tense few weeks as the wave of infections grew ever closer – no longer focussed within a far and distant sounding part of China but causing havoc across Italy, France, Spain, the UK and now it seems, pretty much every part of the world. A quarter of the global population – a staggering 2 billion people – are currently in some form of lockdown, confined to their homes in order to slow the spread of the virus and, in so doing, allow time for governments and health services to prepare for the spike in patient numbers and the inevitable rising death toll.

Almost overnight UWE, Bristol – like universities, schools and colleges around the world – closed its doors and shifted from face-to-face to online delivery. Staff and students have responded with huge adaptability – revising delivery and assessment processes that would have taken months, if not years, through traditional channels. The speed and the scale of changes for organisations in every sector and location are unprecedented. Manufacturers have switched their operations to enable the production of essential items such as ventilators, face masks, hand sanitiser and paracetamol that are now in such high and urgent demand. Governments have drawn up detailed plans to support individuals and organisations at risk of redundancy/bankruptcy – casting aside the usual economic concerns to focus on social priorities such as protecting the vulnerable, supporting those in financial difficulty and strengthening core public services (particularly health and social care). And communities have rallied together in ways not seen since WWII – providing support and reassurance for the elderly and isolated, sacrificing personal liberties for collective benefit and finding new ways to connect, communicate and collaborate.

In the words of the Chinese curse we are indeed living in interesting times (1) – both fraught with risk and opportunity. The turbulence of the last few years has revealed deep divisions within society, as illustrated particularly clearly in the Brexit vote within the UK and Trump presidency in the US. The rise of populism has been associated with scepticism and distrust of experts and evidence, with social media providing the perfect echo chamber for amplifying the polarity of perspectives and questioning the nature of ‘truth’. Differing ideologies and beliefs have been positioned in opposition to one another – them and us, winners and losers, do or die – rather than as an inevitable and desirable characteristic of a diverse and inclusive society, which enables creativity, adaptability and resilience in times of complexity, uncertainty and change.

One of the remarkable consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic has been how quickly it has reset the dial on many of these issues – fostering calls for compassion, solidarity and collective action. At times like this it is our similarities rather than our differences that define us. This is as true for those in positions of power and privilege as those who are marginalised and/or find themselves living in precarity.  We are all susceptible to the virus, all have people we care about who are likely to become very ill or perhaps even die should they catch it, and will all be affected by the economic and social impacts of the outbreak – not just for the months that it lasts but for years to come. The capacity of individuals, families, organisations, communities and nations to weather the storm is not equal, however, with those with least access to financial, emotional and other resources most likely to bear the brunt of the suffering.

An unexpected outcome of Covid-19 is the impact on the environment. The reduction in pollution levels around the world during just the relatively short time in which travel, manufacturing and other environmentally damaging activities have been reduced demonstrates both how directly human activity impacts on the environment and the remarkable ability of the environment, and the animals and plants within it, to recover if given the opportunity. For those who have been calling for a step-change for policy, practice and behaviour towards a more sustainable way of life there is no more compelling evidence of the extent to which this is possible and the environmental benefits it would produce.

For those of us interested in leadership research, education and practice there are many important lessons to take from the current situation. I’m sure everyone will have their own take on events but as a starter for ten here are a few of my own takeaways so far.

  • Shared purpose – after winning a significant majority in the general election of December 2019 Boris Johnson and his government focussed on building a sense of urgency and commitment to ‘getting Brexit done’ that largely entrenched rather than unified opinions around this issue. With Covid-19 the focus has completely shifted to a shared purpose that unites rather than divides individuals and communities. It took a little while to get to this point but, for now at least, the nation is far more unified around a common purpose than it has been for many years.
  • Collective leadership – whilst there is a tendency to equate ‘leadership’ with the traits and behaviours of individual ‘leaders’ the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates the need for individuals and groups to work concurrently and collaboratively in order to achieve leadership outcomes. In daily news briefings, Prime Minister Johnson and members of the cabinet have stood alongside the Chief Medical Officer and other experts to provide clarity and direction to an uncertain population. Whilst this is perhaps the most visible ‘leadership’ at national level it is abundantly clear that it is dependent on significant acts of leadership elsewhere as well as the active ‘followership’ of those responding to calls for care and consideration.
  • Systems change – the Coronavirus pandemic is an inherently complex problem that requires expertise and effort from multiple domains to make sense of the issues and to mobilise timely and effective responses. The concept of ‘systems leadership’, increasingly advocated within public services, highlights the need to influence and leverage engagement across organisational, professional and other boundaries. Frequently this means needing to lead without formal authority – to work with principles of complexity and systems thinking to initiate new patterns of behaviour that spread from one context to another. It also involves dismantling and rebuilding systems, structures and processes – both physical and psychological – that constrain rather than enable transformation and change.
  • Sensemaking – in times of ambiguity and uncertainty leadership has a key role to play in helping people to make sense of the situation(s) in which they find themselves. The people who will be recognised as ‘leaders’ are those who are able to frame the context in a way that acknowledges the nature and severity of the issue(s), addresses the concerns of their constituents and which provides a degree of clarity about the actions/responses that are required. Within the US Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York, has emerged as key national figure in mobilising the response to Coronavirus – providing far greater clarity and direction than Trump and now being mooted as the democratic candidate for the next US election despite not even standing as a nominee.
  • Place based leadership – whilst many national figures have struggled to grapple with the scale and implications of the issues posed by Covid-19 local leaders have often responded far quicker and been more effective at mobilising public, private, voluntary and community groups and organisations to collaborate and respond. Place-based leadership is responsive to the context that surrounds it – drawing together multiple perspectives and expertise to address issues of concern to citizens within a particular locale – and will be essential not only in dealing with the immediate effects of Covid-19 but in the long period of rebuilding and recovery that will follow the pandemic.

These are just a few initial reflections and there is far more that could be said. Looking forward I have no doubt that the Spring of 2020 will be seen as a defining moment in our understanding of and engagement with leadership, complexity and change. I only hope that we learn the lessons and make use of them to create a stronger, healthier, kinder, safer world rather than defaulting back to the divisive and destructive policies, practices and behaviours that preceded the current crisis (2).

Richard Bolden

Bristol Leadership and Change Centre

27 March 2020

Notes

(1) Whilst often presented as the English translation of a traditional Chinese curse the phrase ‘may you live in interesting times’ has rather more recent origins – see https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/may-you-live-in-interesting-times.html

(2) Please do share your own reflections and insights by means of the comments box at the end of the post in order to continue the discussion. Further reading and resources linked to the themes raised in this article are given below.

Further reading

Bolden, R. and O’Regan, N. (2016) Digital Disruption and the Future of Leadership: An Interview With Rick Haythornthwaite, Chairman of Centrica and MasterCard, Journal of Management Inquiry, 25(4), 438-446.

Bolden, R. and O’Regan, N. (2018) Leadership and Creativity in Public Services: An Interview With Lord Michael Bichard, Chair of the National Audit Office, Journal of Management Inquiry, 27(1), 45-51.

Bolden, R. and Witzel, M. (2017) Dis-united Kingdom? Leadership at a crossroads. In S. Western and E.J. Garcia (Eds) Global Leadership Perspectives: Insights and Analysis. London: Sage.

Bolden, R. et al. (2011) Exploring Leadership: Individual, organisational and societal perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bolden, R. et al. (2017) Leadership Paradoxes: Rethinking leadership for an uncertain world. London: Routledge.

Bolden, R. et al. (2019) Developing systems leadership in public health: A scoping report. UWE, Bristol on behalf of Public Health England.

Bolden, R. et al. (2020) Mobilizing Change in Public Services: Insights from a Systems Leadership Development Intervention, International Journal of Public Administration, 43(1), 26-36.

Bolden. R. et al., (2019) Inclusion: The DNA of leadership and change. UWE, Bristol on behalf of the NHS Leadership Academy.

Paradox of success and failure

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Moon Executive Search recently spoke to the Director of Doctoral Research in Business and Law at UWE Bristol, Svetlana Cicmil, about the paradox of success and failure in the context of modern businesses. Read the original post here.

Most [IT] projects fail; it is just a question of how much failure can still be deemed a success’”[Cadle and Yeates (2001)]

The binary notions of success and failure govern much of the way that both individuals and organisations approach, experience and evaluate work. But how adequate is the traditional narrative of success and failure? Does it enable or hinder the pursuit of constructive, fulfilling work?

The consequences of constantly evaluating our actions and achievements as binary outcomes can not only be long-lasting, and include anxiety and insecurity, professional penalties, and loss of direction; they can also make us lose our ability to sensitively, holistically and constructively reflect on our activities and organisational purpose in a wider social context.

Take the IT industry, for example, it is famous for its failures at the project level and for its success at the industry level:

“Massive failure rates have never threatened the advance of IT; quite the contrary, high-risk and prone-to-fail projects nearly always characterize leading-edge industries. Failure in this sense is the price of success.” (Sauer, 1999, quoted in Fincham, 2002, p.2)

This not only demonstrates how ‘failure’ is required for innovation, but also that the attributions of failure and success are dependent on who judges them, at which point in time, and at which level of activity.

Therefore, it is fair to say that failure and success are interrelated in an elusive way. Drawing on insights from studies of project-based work we can examine the elusive nature of the fixed categories of success and failure, illuminate the multiple judgments of success and failure that are simultaneously at play, and encourage a more critical and complex approach to coping with this dilemma in everyday working life.

Increasingly employees are finding that their roles have become project-intensive and that as a result they are working and making decisions within the organising principles of matrix structures. In theory, matrix structures support effective and efficient utilisation of an organisations’ resources, creating the capacity to simultaneously run multiple projects.

However, a well-researched syndrome of project overload includes the pressures and anxieties caused by the simultaneous existence of multiple, mutually-exclusive, but complexly interrelated criteria for evaluating the performance of each of the projects that an employee may be simultaneously involved in.

Where multiple parties participate in project initiation and delivery, they will make sense of, and engage with, the project in different ways and with different ambitions and expectations, this can create irreconcilable criteria. 

The challenge is to find a way for the project’s participants to negotiate and agree on the key criteria against which inevitable changes to the project plan, resulting trade-offs, and any redefinitions of the original goal and specification will be tested and evaluated.

In order to do this, we need to consider how the notions of success and failure are framed. Instead of working with belief that success and failure are polarised, discrete, fixed states, organisations should be asking how they can provide their employees with a fulfilling and meaningful working life which is not impacted by the requirement to undertake multiple projects. But how can this be achieved?

Firstly, review the ambitions driving each project in a more reflexive, caring and satisfying manner. This requires awareness of the need to navigate the unknown in a responsible way which will avoid the negligence and reckless risk-taking that may detrimentally impact those involved in the project.

Secondly, failure is often tied up with a feeling of having let down and disappointed the project team and wider company. But does this stem from original unrealistic expectations? When undertaking a new project ask for an objective opinion on the ambition, expectations, and goals, do not discard previous experiences as irrelevant with the conviction that things will go better this time, and make sure that there is time to consult and check.

Deviation from a plan should not be considered a failure if everyone involved has been open-minded, critically reflexive, and collaborative about what new opportunities this might bring.

Finally, the leadership team should introduce systemic changes that acknowledge the complexity of project-based work. These could include incorporating regular reviews of established processes and approaches to collaboration, agreeing and renegotiating project performance indicators, and introducing a high level of accountability, responsibility, and transparency in decision-making to reduce vulnerability from project overload.

By considering the experience of success and failure in the context of project-based work, we find that the success-failure binary is not only too simplistic but is actively harmful to the pursuit of what matters. Rather than considering success as something desirable and failure as a pathology to be eradicated, should they not be considered in a complex relational way? If so, the key questions, therefore, move from ‘Why did this fail?’ to ‘What was achieved?’ and ‘What can be learned from this?’

18th International Studying Leadership Conference

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From 13-15 December 2019 Bristol Leadership and Change Centre hosted the 18th International Studying Leadership Conference, which was attended by around 140 delegates from 13 different countries.

The conference featured three keynote addresses (Prof Peter Case from UWE, Prof Sonia Ospina from the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, and Prof Elena Antonacopoulou from the University of Liverpool), a panel discussion at City Hall (chaired by Prof Robin Hambleton with contributions from Mayor Marvin Rees, Kalpna Woolf and Andy Street), five parallel streams (including almost 90 separate papers) and a gala dinner at the Marriott Royal Hotel on College Green.

Participants have been invited to submit their papers for a special issue of the journal Leadership on the conference theme of ‘Putting leadership in its place’, which will be edited by Neil Sutherland, Gareth Edwards, Doris Schedlitzki and Richard Bolden.

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