New times and new leadership
'We need to rethink leadership. Instead of isolating leadership to the manager, to the individual, we need to unleash and distribute leadership throughout the organisation. Anyone with good ideas and the initiative to implement their ideas can be a leader."
Sweden's municipalities, county councils and regions are facing major challenges. Stimulating tasks that require new leadership.
The challenges faced by our welfare providers can be categorised into three areas:
- Societal development and democracy - working with other actors to achieve societal and democratic development.
- Efficient and digitised welfare and services - creating efficient welfare/services that are both cost-effective and create quality for the inhabitants.
- Skills provision - being an attractive employer and being able to recruit, retain and develop the skills required today and in the future.
Faced with the fantastic opportunity to lead societal development into the future, the public sector is faced with the conditions for something completely different. For decades, the focus of management and governance has been on increasing control and formal management of organisations. Professionals and employees have felt increasingly constrained by demands for reporting, administration and follow-up of objectives that have no legitimacy in the organisation.
"For decades, the focus of management and governance has been on increasing control and formal management of organisations. Professionals and employees have felt increasingly constrained by the demands for reporting, administration and follow-up of goals that have no legitimacy in the organisation."
Regulation and governance of tax-financed activities is a necessity to ensure that democratic values benefit citizens as intended by politicians, but it has gone too far and has damaged trust between politicians and civil servants, between managers and employees, between citizens and public institutions.
What does it matter? That trust is declining? It is the ore, the forest and hard work that built the country. No, it is the high level of trust between people that has built our prosperity, forests are found in many parts of the world, even in poor countries. In Robert Putnam's 1993 modern classic The Working Democracy, the differences in democratic development and prosperity between northern and southern Italy are explained by different levels of trust between people in the north and south.
Political science and economics research refers to high-trust societies. High-trust societies are more cooperative and have lower transaction costs because they rely less on coercive measures. If we transfer this reasoning to our organisations and workplaces, we could assume that high-trust workplaces are more cooperative and have lower control costs because they are less dependent on formal governance.
When the passivating effect of increased control and micromanagement on employees has become apparent in the Swedish public sector, the solution has often been leadership. 'As long as we strengthen the managers' ability to lead, they will bring their employees along. They have had to attend courses in developmental leadership, coaching leadership, situational leadership and strategic leadership, only to return to their organisations with sky-high expectations on their shoulders.
With leadership as the solution, managers have been given an unreasonable amount of importance in the organisation's ability to deliver results. Managers are supposed to be the heroes who turn the ship around and get the wind in their sails. When the demands and expectations on managers increase, for example after they have been on an expensive course for five days, they struggle to live up to the role they have helped to create. They withdraw, only socialise with managers, and don't make friends with their colleagues. They can't bear to let in stories about what it's like to be an employee because they are not comfortable with the role they have to play, the hero role, the one who has to fix everything. Therefore, new, more democratic images of leadership are needed. Images of leadership that give life and vigour to the social development that the public sector should lead.
We need to rethink leadership. Instead of isolating leadership to the manager, to the individual, we need to unleash and distribute leadership in the organisation. Anyone with good ideas and the initiative to implement their ideas can be a leader. We in the "leadership industry" talk a lot about the potential of employee engagement but unfortunately remain very focused on the manager as a superior. McKinsey's research shows that a manager who sits on top of a network is not part of it, and thus not as effective as the manager who participates in the network on equal terms.
Henry Mintzberg has long emphasised the need for more democratic and distributed leadership. A leadership where the manager is important by caring more than remedying, uniting more than controlling. An effective leadership based on co-operation and trust in the good will of people.
Finally, a change of line from Bertold Brecht.
"Unfortunate is the country that has no heroes"
"No, unhappy is the country that needs heroes"