Captain Frank Furillo, in the classic 1980s cop show Hill Street Blues, lived by the maxim, “if you deny responsibility you undermine authority.”
It’s an ideal that seems to have gone out of fashion of late. Boris Johnson takes no responsibility for the tens of thousands who have died from his bungling of public health measures during the Covid pandemic. Matt Hancock doesn’t take responsibility for incompetent businesses getting PPE contracts because he knew them from down the pub . The DUP does not take responsibility for the consequences of the Brexit they so enthusiastically endorsed.
So far they all seem to have gotten away with it and as yet have suffered little electoral penalty. But even if the world of electoral politics seems to have, at least temporarily, broken free of the gravity of responsibility, that does not mean that the rest of us can.
In most other professional environments the loyalty of colleagues and subordinates will be lost the instant that a leader tries to shift blame for errors they have made, or take the credit for things that the work of others has achieved. Such actions immediately mark someone out as undependable and it is difficult for professional authority to survive in the absence of trust.
When I was doing my PhD I had a conversation with some young students who had just started post-graduate courses in management. One in particular, I remember, was appalled that there were no “right” answers to the essay questions she was being asked. Instead she had to develop her own arguments and come to her own judgements drawing on her experiences and reading.
Leadership may be about many things, and certainly the libraries of the world are filled with books on its diverse aspects. But a core function will always be judgement. Indeed, in the 19th Century a frequent metaphor for the US presidency, drawing on the traditions of Ancient Rome, was that of the Chief Magistrate of the Republic.
This analogy remains a powerful one because it recognises that within any leadership environment when it comes to making a choice there will always be competing interests, and various strands of argument and information, that may be difficult and, too frequently, insufficient. But what marks the leader out in these environments is that they are the person who is prepared to assess the evidence and its interpretations and take responsibility for making judgements based upon it.
Of course in such environments the idea of professional responsibility is not just a functional matter but one of values and morality. A leader can value being popular and so make decisions that will achieve this in the short term irrespective of the longer term consequences: for example, approving paying dividends to share-holders rather than investing to secure a business’ future and the livelihoods of its employees. Or a leader can regard as their highest purpose the preservation of human life and so open themselves to abuse and ridicule from newspaper columnists and political opponents in response to a controversial effort to jump start a peace process involving factions of society with blood on their hands.
Considering the question of the responsibilities for decision making in public policy during the Covid pandemic, the choices of leaders can only be properly understood by considering the values those leaders have sought to prioritise. The idea that we can be wholly “led” by science through this crisis is an echo of that young student’s wish for “right” answers to her essay questions. Irrespective of what evidence, scientific or otherwise, is available to decision makers, and irrespective of what it says, evidence does not have its own agency. That is, it has no capacity on its own to make policy choices based on any sense of morality. Hence evidence cannot lead anything. Instead it is the human beings who are prepared to take responsibility for decision making who must lead based on not just evidence but also conscience.
In the course of this pandemic we have seen that some leaders, like Jacinda Arden, have assessed the same scientific evidence available to Boris Johnson, and taken responsibility for very different decisions. As a result very few people have died of Covid in New Zealand.
In other words, leaders and their values matter, perhaps in a public health crisis more than anywhere else. Few professionals will ever have to face such dreadful leadership challenges. But lives and livelihoods still depend on the choices we do have to make in other spheres. If we ever surrender the responsibility for making the right choice, the life-affirming choice, to the temptation of making the unsustainable one, no matter how popular, we will never deserve to be entrusted with authority again.
Leading through the Covid 19 pandemic has become a preoccupation for many facing disruption and difficulty at this time. Michael Dowling’s timely new book ‘Leading Through a Pandemic: The Inside Story of Humanity, Innovation, and Lessons Learned During the COVID-19 Crisis’ provides perhaps, the first organisational account of the challenges and struggles of leadership practitioners at this extraordinary time. Dowling is widely regarded as one of the most internationally influential thought leaders on healthcare management and holds honorary doctorates from a number of Universities – including Queen’s. His experience of leading through Covid 19 arises from his role as president and CEO of Northwell Health, where he leads a clinical, academic and research enterprise with a workforce of more than 72,000 and annual revenue of $13.5 billion.
Northwell is the largest health care provider and private employer in New York State, caring for more than two million people annually through a network of nearly 800 outpatient facilities, including 220 primary care practices, 52 urgent care centers, home care, rehabilitation and end-of-life programs, and 23 hospitals. With this structure, it was at the centre of the New York pandemic response and Dowling was at the helm during a once in the generation crisis. I was very fortunate this week to be able to offer some closing remarks at the end of Michael Dowling’s guest lecture at QUB – an event facilitated through the Chief Executive’s Club at Queen’s. Michael’s inspirational address reflected on both his own leadership experiences over the past year and some of the lessons for leadership practice more generally. In doing so, it focused on both the human and the technical aspects of the leadership challenge. For example, the last year has starkly illustrated the importance of planning for resilience, preparation for adverse incidents and the need to actively construct both adaquate domestic infrastructure and international early warning systems to allow for the best possible responses to future events. This means, as Michael reflected, cultivating a culture of preparedness, innovation and creativity within local, national and international structures and actively preparing for the worst that can happen. Perhaps the most evocative parts of Michael’s address related to his own personal leadership ethos and approach. He spoke about the centrality of communication as a leadership practice and importance of choosing leaders who are team players and who are interested in building collaborative cultures – not operating solo. Most movingly was is emphasis on what he called ‘walking the wards’ – being present with your colleagues when they were going through the worst of times. This belief that if you put your staff on the front lines, you have to be on the front lines with them, has real resonance for anyone managing or leading over the past year. It also puts leaders and leadership at the very center of human experience and the lived reality of their colleagues lives. In the time of Covid, this means being a witness to both the horrific and the heroic, and cultivating leadership behaviors which are personally trustworthy, accountable and seek to draw people together under a central vision. One of the things that came across most clearly from Michael’s address is his relentless optimism and his counsel that leaders should strive to remain upbeat and optimistic - not only when times are good, but also when times are not so good. He was careful to stress that bad times pass and that this experience of Covid – while dreadful, also has the potential to make us more prepared and better able to deal with the next big challenge. Thanks to Michael we now have the opportunity to understand how these important points reflect not just on individual leaders, but for the collective leadership of our organisations, our communities and our societies going forward.
Creating urgency has become synonymous with leading change to the detriment of individuals, organizations, and societies. The more leaders create these artificial crises, the less we trust and engage with our leaders and the less effective their change leadership becomes.
The sense of urgency on a major organizational change was famously likened to a burning platform (Conner, 1998). Subsequently, the question has frequently been asked – what’s the burning platform? Conner (1998) recounts learning about the burning platform through television coverage of an explosion and fire on an oil-drilling platform. Whilst, 166 crew members, and 2 rescuers lost their lives, there were survivors. Andy jumped 150 feet in the middle of the night into a sea of burning oil and debris, subsequently commenting ‘it was either jump or fry.’ We will all be confronted with situations requiring urgency, though hopefully less dramatic. Thankfully the urgency required when confronted with an explosion and a fire was atypical for oil exploration companies. It is likely that many of their successes were by-products of patient desk research undertaken over many years, rather than taking ‘jump or fry’ gambles on different oil exploration sites. In this post, I argue that creating a sense of urgency has been overemphasized in accounts of leading change and that the urgency instinct may even be problematic with implications for leading change practices.
How did Kotter encourage a sense of urgency?
Kotter (2008) devoted a book to change leaders creating this sense of urgency, which was the third of Kotter’s (1996/2012) eight leading change steps.
Visible crises can be enormously helpful in catching people’s attention and pushing up urgency levels. Conducting business, as usual, is very difficult if the building seems to be on fire. But in an increasingly fast-moving world, waiting for a fire to break out is a dubious strategy. And in addition to catching people’s attention, a sudden fire can cause a lot of damage. (Kotter, 1996: 45)
Whereas, Andy jumped from the burning platform because it was a case of ‘jump or fry’, Kotter (1996) appears to pre-empt the fire with the change leader encouraged to engineer a sense of urgency so that the ‘building seems to be on fire.’ Kotter (1996:44) offered many tips on raising urgency levels, such as ‘create a crisis by allowing a financial loss, exposing managers to major weaknesses vis-à-vis competitors, or allowing errors to blow up instead of being corrected at the last minute.’ Leading change in such an unethical way is likely to result in trust between leaders and subordinates being lost. There is a primitive appeal in the urgency instinct as it appears to invest power in the change leader over subordinates, but at what cost to individuals, organizations and societies?
This post is courtesy of our CLEO Research Affiliate, Dr Mark Hughes and was first published as part of Mark’s own blog - https://woodlanddecay.com – we would encourage you to explore more of his writing and publications there…
“Efficiency” has become the driver of public sector reform evidenced through a perpetual series of belt-tightening initiatives by UK governments in the interests of reducing public expenditure in what is now regarded as “the new social economy” (Murray, 2009). Following the financial crisis and the UK bank bail-out in 2008, the UK government has wrestled with the complexities of managing a broken health care system that is wanton in relevance and demands reform and modernisation. Some might argue that public sector reform is not enough to confront the challenges of increased demand and waiting times for health services, intractable social problems, and finite resources and diminishing budgets, and so radical innovation is needed wherein leadership moves from the margins to the mainstream.
Leading transformational change in public services demands systemic interventions central to distributed leadership, design thinking, integrated multi-disciplinary team working, the integration of enabling technologies, and enhanced social capital. It requires a vision where patients who are “experts by experience” are enabled to play an active and dynamic role in improving their personal health and wellbeing outcomes. This vision epitomises a “co-production” philosophy. While the concept of co-production is fraught with definitional and conceptual ambiguity, it is commonly described as “establishing a partnership between citizens and government to tackle a social problem” (Horne and Shirley, 2009).
I think it’s not hard to justify why co-production is considered an increasingly popular methodology in policy making, public health, third sector and community-based service delivery organisations given that much has been published about the benefits of co-production for society, communities and individuals locally, nationally and internationally. The concept’s traction has recently shaped and informed strategic policy developments in healthcare, including the Northern Ireland Department of Health’s Co-Production Guide (2018) and its aim to move towards the creation of a citizen powered health and social care system. Placing citizens at the centre of the design and delivery of key services such as healthcare, creates and leverages collective ownership raising the potential for collaborative engagement between the public , voluntary, community and Social Enterprise organisations. Nonetheless, there are multiple issues that need to be addressed. For example, seeing citizens as experts by experience and placing them at the heart of decisions that impact their wellbeing, challenges traditional power bases that perpetuate a “you and us” culture. In the words of Nick Cleg “We should not all be supplicants at the state machine, but enabled to take charge of our health.” (The Liberal Moment, 2009). However, this may be easier said than done.
In an effort to lift the lid on co-production Queens Management School in partnership with the Cedar Foundation hosted a multi-stakeholder conference for 90 delegates in June 2019. The conference provided a platform for the exchange of best practice and lessons learned about co-production from academics, healthcare professionals, practitioners, and service users. Consistent with the body of research, the conference identified disparities in how co-production was defined, understood and conceptualised across stakeholders. Nonetheless, co-production starts with “understanding what genuinely matters to people. The creation of equal partnerships and power-sharing offers opportunities for people to influence decisions that shape services both locally and strategically.” (CEO, The Cedar Foundation). However, the notion of power-sharing raises questions relating to how best to lead wicked challenges that require knowledge exchange across organisational boundaries and stakeholders.
Adopting a collaborate rather than a paternalistic leadership approach that facilitates equal power-sharing, and engagement with marginalised groups, in heavily institutionalised public services that are strongly professionalised, may be a tall ask. However, if the rhetoric of co-production is to really work in practice, then public service organisations (PSOs) may have to embrace a more distributed style of leadership where multi-stakeholder, multi-agency stakeholder collaboration on service co-design, co-delivery and co-evaluation ultimately enable the potential for more tailored and targeted interventions for citizens and more sustainable public services.
Whether it be tackling poverty, discrimination or homelessness, promoting equality, supporting victims of trauma, or protecting the environment through conservation and recycling – social purpose organisations (SPOs) are taking a greater share of society’s most challenging and most important work. It is fair to say that since February 2020, COVID-19 has shaken the world, stretched public finances, and deeply impacted the quality of life of many vulnerable individuals and communities who represent the lifeblood of SPOs. The importance of SPOs in the economy is reflected in their increasing involvement in the delivery of services across multiple policy dimensions in the UK (Bryson et al., 2017).
Renowned for their innovation in addressing social challenges and wicked problems, SPOs seek to create value for disadvantaged beneficiaries. Take for example their response to the current COVID-19 pandemic, SPOs have been a trusted partner, bolstering public services and complementing government action by rapidly mobilising their resources and utilising their unique capabilities to provide rapid solutions by “catalyzing social change and meeting social needs’ (Salvado 2011, p.84). However, balancing social mission with economic margin has become an increasingly challenging exercise for SPOs in a climate where more is expected with less. So, while we applaud their timely and innovative responses to COVID-19, the current pandemic has impacted the financial sustainability of many SPOs. Estimates at the start of the coronavirus crisis suggest that the UK SPO sector may loose around £2.5billion each month that the lockdown continues (Social enterprise UK, 2020). If we then add cuts in public sector services, increased competition for resources, and heightened demand for services from vulnerable groups historically provided by the State to the mix, the challenges for SPO sustainability are further compounded (Henderson and Lambert, 2018).
As the magnitude and complexity of socio-economic challenges facing society exceed the capabilities of any single SPOs organisation, collaboration is perceived as essential. Against such limitations, it is perhaps not surprising that an increasing number of SPOs are innovating their traditional, silo focused business models to form value networks.
Please click here to read the full blog article including references.
On Tuesday, I have the great privilege of chairing a panel of distinguished researchers and commentators on the leadership legacy of John Hume and John Lewis. The panel is entitled ‘Leadership as Bridgebuilding’ in an attempt to encapsulate the collective and connective aspects of the leadership of both Hume and Lewis. Of course, a theme like this raises many questions, not least the complexity of the interrelationship between the USA and Ireland, the role of emblematic leadership, the centrality of collective action and how to span divides that create solutions to intractable problems. When I think about Hume and Lewis, there is another characteristic that comes to mind, and that is bravery – or to put it another way – the management of fear. I have written about this in my recent book as a characteristic of conflict transformation entrepreneurs, but it feels particularly significant this week during an election which has been shrouded in threats – of a pandemic, of racial injustice and disharmony, of protest and counter protest and to democracy itself.
The success of the self identified ‘Irish’ President elect Joe Biden seems an inflection point in a conflict riven landscape. The emblematic nature of the US Presidency makes it one of those roles which holds within it the hopes and dreams of an untold number of people. By acquiring the title, the President himself takes on a mantle of leadership which, while it comes with an expiry date (looking at you President Trump) it is never fully relinquished. Presidents retain both the symbolism of the title and the soft power of having held the office. This is why much of the debate around this US election has been about ‘character’: a willingness to be and do the right thing, to take responsibility for your actions and the bravery to carry that through. It is not a surprise that in such a charged atmosphere, other leadership figures who have gone before have haunted this campaign like ghosts, their present almost tangible, exhorting a better way. John Lewis was there of course. His extraordinary bravery, manifesting in physical resistance to brutality and political resistance to discrimination, represents a breath taking lifetime of resilience. Lewis’s death during the last months of the Trump presidency, his words of ‘good trouble’, and his encouragement to young people to pick up the torch all occurred against the backdrop of horror and fury at the death of George Floyd. #Icantbreathe became a powerful angry retort to those who believed that the work Lewis had dedicated his life to was done. Another ghost was also present - a once presidential hopeful who did not take the crown – Senator John McCain. While McCain had his detractors, there was no question that at personal and political inflection points his raw bravery could not be called into question. Those final acts – voting and speaking against the worst excesses of Trump – threw the inaction of the republican party into sharp relief. His evocation eight years ago of Obama as an opponent, not an enemy was echoed by Biden as he called for a return to decency and civility in politics. If Lewis represented the soul of the Democrats, McCain was the spectre at the feast for Republicans – a truth which could not be escaped. There can be few too, who have read or observed Biden in these months who have not thought to themselves the depths to which he must have had to reach to overcome the deaths of his young wife and child and latterly his son, and the courage it must have taken to continue. This new presidency is seen by many an opportunity to span divides and re-establish tarnished relationships. This week, as the election result began to crystallise and it became clear that Biden was uncatchable, I had a brief conversation with someone who had been active in his campaign. “Thank God for John McCain and John Lewis” was what he said. Leadership as bridge building.
The death of George Floyd in America has sparked a far reaching and heated debate about structural oppression, black rights, institutional racism and the economic legacy of slavery. For obvious reasons, the police are right at the centre of these arguments and police leadership is under the spotlight as never before. While the structure, approach and context of policing in the USA is very different to what we see in these islands, there is no doubt that a broader conversation about what leadership means in a policing context is long overdue. If policing is to fully address the challenges of a changing world both in these islands and further afield, then it will require a rethink about how leadership is perceived, identified and rewarded.
It’s very interesting that in a review of material from UK and Ireland police organisations, the focus is very much on ‘leaders’ rather than ‘leadership’. This is unhelpful for two reasons. Firstly, we have increasingly come to understand that leadership is a shared rather than an individual venture – people (and police officers) lead not just when in a positional leadership roles but by demonstrating behaviour and practices which move the organisation forward and demonstrate an ability to manage complexity and change. Secondly, by focusing on ‘leaders’ as people rather than leadership as a thing, we create a situation of both scape-goats and cop-outs – an ability of organisational members to put the blame for leadership failures somewhere else – and not with themselves. Of course, within police organisations much of this conversation comes back to rank, authority and power. We know, as well that policing is more vulnerable than most to cultures that are dominated by in group behaviour, machismo and heroic leadership architypes. While wider police structures talk the talk of guiding principles that include morale and wellbeing, innovation, diverse leadership teams, performance, learning and development, and the cultivation of talent (UK), as well as a concern for both operational competencies and self-aware reflective questioning of assumptions (Garda).
The current pandemic has encouraged a greater debate about the types of leadership practices which lead to the most positive outcomes within extreme and contested environments. Ironically, police organisations operate in these contexts not just during a pandemic, but every day. Volatility and crisis is challenging for organisations because it creates a setting in which decision making times are significantly compressed while organisational complexity is increased. Volatile environments also tend to be highly dynamic, interconnected and interdependent, intensifying the outcomes of both action and inaction. We know that for leaders faced with the urgency and complexity that defaulting to formal power structures, guarding information and closing ranks are behaviours that make the management of extreme contexts more difficult. By contrast, leaders who veer towards ‘transformational’ behaviours in crisis are more successful with better outcomes and increased organisational cohesion. Such behaviours include a greater propensity to share power and information, and build diverse decision making groups. There is also evidence from research which would suggest that transformational behaviours are more common in female leaders during upheaval. This in itself, should give policing organisations pause for thought given the relative paucity of females in senior ranks. Most importantly, is the ability to draw on a ‘social network’ of leadership internally and externally which allows for and enables collective action. Police officers at all levels will know themselves how often these transformative practices are demonstrated and what leadership behaviours are recognised and rewarded at all levels. There is no doubt though, that the more diverse decision making is, the better outcomes tend to be.
The recent interviews by Neil Basu and other BAME police officers have proved a moving reminder of the difficulties that still exist for many within police services. It should be remembered that not all of these police officers felt able to be identified publicly. More locally, recent controversies over PSNI branding, history and approach have highlighted that policing in Northern Ireland still has some way to go to live up to the ideals espoused in the Patten report of 1999. While much external work has been done and a great deal of progress made, issues of internal culture raise their head regulatory and give cause of ongoing concern. The PSNI has an opportunity now to begin to open those debates in a way that allows for the development of better policing, better police officers and enhanced leadership at all levels. It should be remembered that for a significant period of time post the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland was mired in ongoing failure to agree on political structures and their management. In that time, the newly framed Police Service of Northern Ireland managed a difficult transition with skill. Reengaged in a debate about what police leadership means is critical both locally and further afield.
Dr Joanne Murphy is Academic Director the the William J. Clinton Leadership Institute and Senior Lecturer in Queen's Management School. She has written extensively about leadership and policing transition in Northern Ireland, including her book 'Policing for Peace in Northern Ireland: Change, Conflict and Community Confidence' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
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There is huge interest at the moment in the area of the development of personal resilience within both academic research and from the general public. Of course, if you are lucky enough to never experience any sort of adversity, you won’t know how resilient you are. It’s only when we are faced with obstacles, stress, and other environmental threats that resilience, or the lack of it, emerges: Do you succumb or do you surmount? Very often personal resilience emerges from both the management of threats from the environment, a certain degree of luck and personal connectivity that shields from the worst that life can throw at us. So what do we know about the characteristics and practices of resilient people and can such resilience be developed? Research shows us that resilient people tended to “meet the world on their own terms”.
They are autonomous and independent, seek out new experiences, and have a “positive social orientation”. One of the first people to use the term resilience was Norman Garmezy, a developmental psychologist and clinician at the University of Minnesota. Garmezy, like many psychologists studied the reactions of children to the circumstances in which they found themselves. But what he found interesting was not children who had problems or who were ‘acting out’ in school, but those kids who should have been exhibiting problems but weren’t. Kids whose home life and personal circumstances put them at high risk, but who were functioning well – and sometimes excelling. Garmezy looked for elements of strength, rather than weakness. Subsequent research has identified a number of ‘protective’ factors that allow children and adults alike to overcome the obstacles that life and work presents. Things such as a personal feeling of autonomy, an understanding of ability to act independently rather than ‘react’ to their environment and an ability to control emotions and impulses are shown to be key to bouncing back from what can feel like mountainous difficulties. Those with high levels of resilience tend to ‘frame’ challenges as opportunities and perceive difficult experiences as having a dimension which could lead to personal, psychological or sometimes spiritual growth. The other interesting finding of much of this research indicates that we can build, but also weaken our own resilience and ability to move forward in times of difficulty.
So what sort of strategies can we put in place for ourselves are our colleagues that allow us to become more resilient personally and professionally? It’s useful to ask ourselves how we tend to perceive events, difficulties or circumstances outside our own control? This is ‘framing’: a cognitive mechanism which can illicit negative feedback or a positive reimagining. Actively understanding that we have more control than we think gives us back mental space which can be liberating. Other well know strategies like mindfulness - ‘staying in the present moment’ and compartmentalising challenges are also popular and useful. One active approach is the decision to observe a situation rather than react to it. The next time you are faced with a workplace challenge or a difficult meeting, focus on observing what is actually happening rather than your own emotional or psychological reaction. Be actively aware of the internal story you are telling yourself. We can significantly increase (and decrease) our personal resilience by managing the internal messages we give ourselves.
And how do we develop resilience in others who we might have some responsibility for? Perhaps the biggest lesson from the collected research on resilience is the importance and the possibility of building what researchers call ‘a scaffolding of support’. This doesn’t mean ‘mollycoddling’ or lifting difficulties of others. It means actively modelling not just success, but the way to success. One fascinating study of US marines who had failed basic training (a public and humiliating experience) took those individuals through that training again, but this time buddying them with a partner every (literal) step of the way. Those marines transformed public failure into public success - but not on their own. They still did the work, but with a personal and organisationally scaffolding of support. Turning around what feels like a failure is possible - for both ourselves and others. Interestingly those marines turned out to be more successful as organisational members after their experiences. Resilience is built from adversity, but it also requires those around us to reach out a hand.
Dr. Joanne Murphy
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This is the second part of a two part series blog on resilience by our Academic Director Dr Joanne Murphy.
For many leaders, issues of risk and resilience have leapt to the top of their organisational agenda as a result of the Covid19 crisis. Resilience is generally regarded as the ability to bounce back from adversity. For organisations, this means having the capacity to anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions in order to survive and prosper. This short blog will look at how we think about and build resilience in our organisations, our teams and ourselves.
To begin, it’s helpful to think about resilience in two ways. The first is the idea of personal resilience: an ability to cope with and emerge from personal challenges to ourselves, our lives and our beliefs. If you’re interested in this, a previous blog in this series looks at it in detail here. In terms of the organisational dimensions of resilience, approaches tend to be dominated by two principal concerns: defensive resilience (essentially stopping bad things happening) and progressive resilience (making good things happen).
Building organisational and team resilience requires an appreciation of a number of central questions such as the nature of risk and disruptive events in the organisational environment. For example, are these potential risks sudden and unpredictable, or slow and silent in their emergence? They also relate to where risks come from; are they internal to the organisation and relating to systems, processes or people or external within the near or distance economic, social or political environment? There should also be a concern here about the organisations position on how much risk it or its leaders are prepared to tolerate.
The practice of organisational resilience itself is often conceived as four processes:
- Foresight (anticipating threats),
- Insight (understanding your organisations purpose and position),
- Oversight (being able to respond and adapt) and
- Hindsight (what have you learnt that you can apply now and in the future?).
It is important to remember that resilience needs to be understood as a connected and integrated set of activities and practices which is tightly coupled with an organisations structure, culture and people. As such, this needs as much work as any other organisational process and should be a daily concern for leaders and managers alike.
At the heart of building and maintaining this ability to adapt is a central paradox. How do you retain control over the layer systems that characterise modern organisations and achieve compliance with external regulation, while cultivating the necessary flexibility to be able to work in a different way when a system shock requires it? It is the ability to hold and maintain this paradox which produces resilient, flexible and adaptive systems. Research also pinpoints the significance of mindfulness observation as a technique useful for leaders who want to build resilient organisations.
But what happens when a significant event does occur such as the Covid19 pandemic and organisational resilience is tested? The work of Powley illustrates for us that often three mechanisms kick into allow the organisation to adapt. The first of these is the process by which the organisation goes into a mode of ‘liminal suspension’ and the crisis temporarily alters the structures of relationships and opens a space in time for those within the organisation to form new relationships and build on existing ones. You may have noticed this within your own organisation as people scrambled to make sense of the early days of the pandemic. The second set of activities are equally important: they relate to how organisation members’ use and build on their interpersonal connections and contacts to respond to other individuals’ differing needs and requirements. This personal connectivity is vital as it protects individual organisational members at a time of crisis, danger and flux. The third identifiable practice is the exercise of social capital and connections across organizational and functional boundaries to activate networks of relationships that enable resilience. Building additional connections allows leaders to gather the type of information which is critical to surviving and thriving in a crisis event.
Dr. Joanne Murphy
For further information on Joanne and our executive leadership programmes click Here
Technologically, economically, politically, environmentally the world is shifting beneath our feet. Change is now no longer confined to organisations: it is system wide, interconnected and discontinuous. Wherever we look, leaders are challenged as they struggle to adjust and align in situations of increasing complexity. Navigating in a context such as this requires different skills, attributes and abilities. Through my work as an academic and advisor I have been fortunate to closely observe and assist organisations facing and managing change in the most extreme environments. From that work a number of key lessons surface: areas of reflection that will help you and your organisation develop your vision and align to an environment in flux.
The first involves thinking about how you frame your leadership. Leaders are ‘pathfinders’ within organisations. At their best they articulate a shared vision, understand strategy as a dynamic process, and ‘sense make’ from confusing environments and mixed messages from stakeholders. Having external ‘sounding boards’ can help leaders untangle conflicting information and allow them perspective amidst frantic activity. An analogy which is may be helpful comes from studies of emergency medicine. When a patient is in difficulty they often have a number of skilled physicians working on them at the same time. But the consultant – the leader, is standing back, often behind, and watching. Because they can’t just look at blood pressure, or respiration, or bleeding – they need to see it all and how it connects. When I’ve worked with leaders dealing with extreme volatility, they have identified the cultivation of this mental ‘space’ – a standing back, as a way to manage complexity and confusion.
The second is the need to reflect on your organisation and what it is actually established to do. This may seem like a strange question but think of it in this context - Harvard academics Heifetz and Linsky have observed that “There is no such thing as a dysfunctional organisation, because every organisation is perfectly aligned to get the results it currently gets”, so asking what your organisation is actually aligned to do is useful - even if sometimes uncomfortable for leaders to identify hidden areas of dysfunction.
The third is your own conceptualisation of what leadership actually is. Traditionally we have tended to see leaders as having some significant attributes which were usually positional (at the top), gender based (male) and heroic (superhuman). Thankfully, we now recognise that leadership appears at all organisational levels and often looks very different from the stereotype. Recognising enacted leadership when we see it is crucial. Rewarding and protecting those leadership behaviours you want within your organisation is just as vital. Retired US General Stanley McCrystal reflects upon this in his recent book on iconic leadership. He comments that leaders are just humans surrounded by those who enable and find meaning in their activities. Leadership is all about context and is an organisational process, as well as an individual one.
Sometimes timing is everything. One of the things that my research has illustrated is that common guidance on managing change doesn’t work in all contexts. Indeed, when an organisation is under stress introducing what is often called ‘a sense of urgency’ can be actively unhelpful. Instead, a paced and inductive approach is more useful. I saw this most critically in the newly established Police Service of Northern Ireland who embarked upon radical, rapid change in a highly volatile environment. Ensuring that the organisation had a period to prepare was important, even though it drew criticism at the time. Thinking about how you time and pace big decisions and their implementation allows you to be in a better position for psychological and structural transition to be successful.
One of the most significant personal challenges for any leader is managing through periods of stress and instability – just the environment we are in at present. Continuing to demonstrate positive behaviours in negative environments is difficult to sustain but vital to those who are looking for direction. During the Northern Ireland peace process senior officials in the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs coined a phrase for periods of difficulty - they saw it as having a ‘duty of hope’. Essentially, this spoke to two aspects of the challenge which faced them: their professional duty and their personal emotional response. As such it was a powerful and accessible idea to hold on to in the darkest of times.
Leading in complexity is tough - having time to reflect even when (especially when) volatility is at its most disruptive, is critical. Barack Obama and John McCain were both running for Presidency of the United States when the financial crisis hit. McCain suspended his campaign and suggested that the first Presidential debate be postponed. Obama refused, commenting ‘that a President needs to be able to focus on more than one thing, at one time’. It was an inflection point in the campaign and McCain never regained momentum. Obama had hit upon a fundamental truth of managing in extreme turbulence: the need to at least attempt the management of environmental complexity. These lessons; the cultivation of mental space, an awareness of aspects of dysfunction, leadership as a whole organisation process, the timing and sequencing of change implementation, and personal and organisational resilience should act as a guide for implementing your vision in challenging times.
Dr. Joanne Murphy
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Established in 2011, the William J Clinton Leadership Institute at Queen's Management School has become a focal point for world class leadership development and executive education. Through a range of high-end open and bespoke programmes over 500 organisations, from the private, public and third sectors, have entrusted the Leadership Institute with the development of their senior teams. In order to learn more about how the Leadership Institute promotes gender equality we posed some questions to Dr Joanne Murphy, Academic Director and Senior Lecturer at Queen’s Management School.
Joanne, how would you define ‘leadership’?
As we know, there are so many definitions of leadership out there. Some from those regarded as leaders themselves and others whose definitions attempt to encapsulate the nature of leadership for those of us who want to understand it better. For me, leadership is an influencing process and a set of practices which are fundamentally about change. Often that brings with it activities which relate closely to communication, visioning and creating coalitions for forward momentum.
What do you think sets great leaders apart?
I think we have to be very careful about concepts of ‘great leadership’. Very often ‘great’ leaders are blessed with a degree of luck that fitted with the ‘zeitgeist’ of the time and a significant level of resources which protect them from the consequences of bad decisions. Of course, traditional perceptions of leadership have often focused on individuals who share a number of key characteristics – they are usually white and male. I do think we are beginning slowly to widen perceptions of what leaders are, and who they are, and that has to be a positive thing.
There are now significantly more women in leadership positions in the private, public, and third sectors, but what, if any, barriers do you think remain in terms of equality?
Those barriers still exist and remain significant. There are still structural blocks in terms of caring responsibilities including access to appropriate and affordable childcare, which falls on and impacts women disproportionately. There are also cultural barriers. How women dress, how they talk, how they are perceived and what is sometimes referred to as their ‘leadership presence’ are difficult and intractable obstacles to overcome. For example, the Hamilton-Alexander Review of 2019 reported that in the FTSE 350, only 25 women are in Chair roles, with even fewer in Chief Executive positions. Undoubtedly there are successes, but while the benefits of diverse boards are well known, progress remains incredibly slow.
Is there any evidence of a difference in regard to how men and women approach leadership?
We know from research that men who describe themselves as leaders tend to have a preference for a transactional style which includes a tendency to default to formal power structures and an inclination to guard and protect information. In contrast, women who self-define as leaders tended to veer towards what are considered ‘transformational’ behaviours including a greater propensity to share power and information, and to bring others into decision making. It’s very interesting especially at the moment in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic. Those of us who study extreme environments do so because they highlight and make visible ongoing organisational processes which are always present but much more obvious in dangerous, disrupted or emergency contexts. The pandemic has highlighted variances in leadership styles which has created considerable debate on precisely this issue with comparisons drawn between male and female political leaders, in particular. No doubt this will develop into further research on the subject.
Does the Leadership Institute offer any specific programmes for women?
The Clinton Leadership Institute as part of the Management School is committed to fair and equitable organisational development, and as such we have a range of programmes which specifically look at the development of women as leaders. Our flagship programme – which we run in partnership with Women in Business, is called ‘Grit and Grace’ and seeks to provide women with the knowledge and confidence to take the next step on the career ladder. The programme is led by our colleague Joanne Kelly and focuses on the need to lead with courage, compassion, authenticity, and accountability. We are now on Cohort 13 and its wonderful to hear positive stories form those who have passed through the programme and gone on to great things.
You have taken on a number of leadership roles yourself, what advice would you offer to new leaders?
That’s a difficult question to answer. Fundamentally, I think you just have to be true to yourself and try to be as positive as possible. I always tend to come back to words of Eleanor Roosevelt who said, “Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway.”