The cult of leadership

Two items on Friday morning hit a common, jarring note in rapid succession. The Metropolitan police have again been accused of insufficient activity to deal with racism; there was an immediate call for leadership. Mayors are being elected to serve English cities; they will provide leadership. ‘Leadership’ is not a solution to anything; the belief that it is has become part of our problems.

The first problem is that the idea misunderstands what public services do, and how they do it. People in public office are supposed to be public servants, not masters. The public services rely on a strong system of accountability – nothing is done that is not part of the “golden thread” – and everyone is responsible to others for their actions. The proposals for mayors are based in the inappropriate belief that what we need to settle our problems is someone who’s really in charge. Nonsense. Anyone who thinks they are “leading” their city should be kept on a leash.

The second problem is that what “leaders” are supposed to do is not what we need to have done. Leadership is commonly described in terms of motivation, influence, strategy and vision. We have bucketfuls of documents of this sort – all made by partnerships, not by leaders – but if they are valid, it is because they rest on participation, empowerment and diverse voices, not the vision of an elite group. Mayors will be advocates for an area, communicators between people and authority, and perhaps executives.

The third problem follows from the second: people are being appointed to senior office on the wrong criteria. They are being selected because they appear to have “leadership” qualities. We have seen a series of fiascoes where “leaders” and “leadership teams” have made visionary but ill-informed decisions – such as the NHS computer system. It might be better if people in senior positions were appointed for their competence, knowledge and skills.

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