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Where Have All The Leaders Gone?

Mal Fletcher
Posted 17 May 2009
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What has happened to leadership in public life?

Years ago, in the classic TV series Yes Minister, the civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby remarked that, "in administration there are no ends, only means." This is why, he said, people speak of "government circles".

In times like these, where society faces multiplied challenges and real or perceived threats - everything from swine flu to unemployment and mortgage failures - people need leadership.

Yet leadership seems to be in precious short supply. What are people offered in its place? Management and administration - most of it poorly executed at that.

In the UK over this past week we've seen wave after wave of media revelations about widespread abuses of the expenses system available to parliamentarians.

What we've learned is that the system, set up by and for politicians, allows MPs to claim benefits that no other professional would dream of - all from the public purse.

Doubtless, there are scores of parliamentarians who have worked entirely within not only the letter but the spirit of the rules governing expenses. Yet so many politicians from all sides of the party divide have been caught with their hands in the till, that people are left with the impression that the entire system is awash with cheating and the abuse of trust.

All this represents not just bad management in government, but a total lack of leadership.

A great deal of administration was going on while all this was happening. All claims for expenses had to be approved by a group of civil service administrators.

Yet without moral leadership - leadership based on conviction rather than pragmatism - administration is left hopelessly at the mercy of expediency.

At the end of the week, the moral of the story is this: we have very few true leaders in government and a great many followers. There are few who will go against "standard practice" - that is, what the rest of the pack are doing - and set out on a righteous path.

The nature of modern government, built as it is around a labyrinth of complex committees and regulatory bodies, allows very little scope for real leadership to develop among the representatives of the people. Politicians are expected to spend their time and energies managing their constituencies and portfolios.

This, I think, may be especially so in modern Britain. Here a combination of 'private club' mentality - the notion that parliament is a privileged club somehow above the normal rules of propriety - and an historic predilection for making rules within rules within rules, all too readily lends itself to "government circles", without clear objectives.

Churchill was arguably the greatest leader of the twentieth century. Yet he became so almost in spite of the system that spawned him, rather than because of it. He understood better than most of his peers that the strength of Britain's ruling classes in setting up and maintaining orderly systems had to be made to serve much bigger priorities and higher purposes. Management had to serve leadership.

Churchill was a leader rather than a manager. In tough times, then as now, leadership must come to the fore.

In politics and civic leadership, as in corporate life, management is a wonderful servant. Where would we be without support structures and systems of operation? But management it is a very poor master.

Management looks to maintain a present position, taking its cues from benchmarks across an industry - and politics can be thought of as an industry, too. Leadership, on the other hand, often turns current trends on their head, creating something from nothing.

Management is concerned with metrics; leadership is focused on mindsets. Management looks for best practice; leadership operates according to big principles.

Managers build structures, but leaders create cultures. Leaders are cultural architects who, by articulating vision, mapping strategy and marshaling activity, create a safe and exciting space in which people flourish and projects fly.

Tough economic times require leadership that is both visionary & visible.

In the light of abuses to the expenses system, it would be easy for parliamentarians - and especially those who lead the major parties - to try to become micro or nano-managers.

Accountability is vital, of course, and there may yet be more revelations to come. Yet we need more than administrators who can tell us how much has been taken, or how to develop better systems for accountability.

We need leaders who will create a totally new governmental culture in this country, one which is based on moral principles, conviction and transparency rather than mere pragmatism, expediency and spin.

This is not only true in the narrow area of parliamentary expenses. We need leaders who can articulate where we are headed as a society.

True leaders always provide the power of context for the community as a whole. They offer a big-picture narrative into which we can plug our lives, individually and collectively. This story helps define who we are and why we count as a nation - which is especially important as globalism gathers pace, leaving us hungrier than ever to discover a sense of "tribe".

Sadly, in the coming European and local elections we are likely to see groups like UKIP and the BNP gaining support by default - simply because they're able to clearly articulate a group vision for the nation as they'd like it to be.

At present, the business of government in this country appears to be more about building systems and setting performance targets for this and that, rather than offering sightlines to a better tomorrow.

Without visionary leadership, administration simply devises more and more complex systems to take us absolutely nowhere! We need fewer "government circles" and many more "lines of sight" - we need more leadership to provide the parameters for management.

Copyright Mal Fletcher, 2009

What’s your view?

Do we need more leaders to emerge in government in your nation?



Keywords: expenses | mps expenses | parliamentary expenses | westminster expenses | british government

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