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The nature of public sector leadership is changing – so must the support offered

4 December 2015

The financial challenges facing the public sector are well documented. Leadership teams have to manage to higher standards driven by more demanding citizens, but with a 30-40% reduction in budgets. They are overseeing a cessation of services and reductions in staff to operate more commercially, efficiently and economically.

The demands and pressure on leaders to deliver against the current economic backdrop have never been greater, and the value that learning and development can add is ever more relevant. Despite tightly squeezed budgets, in many NHS organisations learning and development is seen as a key part of maximising performance and releasing an individual's full potential, rather than viewing it as an extravagance that cannot be justified in today's cash strapped times.

However, as the nature of public sector leadership has changed, so too the way in which we educate those leaders has had to adapt.

New leadership qualities

Previously, leadership development was pretty straightforward. It was about understanding which characteristics exceptional leaders have and using face to face teaching to help leaders model them. The required qualities were easily defined: charisma, confidence, impact, decision-making and directive leadership. Face to face learning sessions would typically involve theoretical sessions supplemented with a workplace assignment and the support of an action learning set using tried and tested project management methodology.

This approach is no longer enough to give senior executives the confidence and value they need to ensure the development of highly effective leaders in shorter time frames. The leadership qualities of the past do not quite cut the mustard in today's world. A leader needs to make tough, unpopular decisions under the watchful and critical eye of the public and media. This takes resilience - but what sits behind resilience? Self-belief? Emotional regulation? Ingenuity? The list goes on. In our experience, development specialists don't always have a deep understanding of how to develop resilience, yet this can yield huge value to a client. We need a robust evidence based perspective.

New leaders can't be ruthless with decision-making. They have to bring people along with them. Being directive will not win you any favours. Collaborative, motivational and in touch is the new order of things.

You'll notice the description of new leadership qualities gets longer and longer. That's because no one way fits all. There is no one leadership style which will suffice. Adaptability is key; leaders need to move seamlessly from behaviour to behaviour depending on the individual they're communicating with or the situation they are in at that precise moment. Developing a 'tool kit' of approaches for leaders to call on at any given time is one of the secrets of successful leadership.

Developing this tool kit is time consuming and expensive if traditional face to face learning is continually applied, however blended approaches to learning that utilise elearning prior to face to face events, action learning sets and coaching support enables leaders to develop a sound knowledge of the underpinning theoretical models in preparation for to face to face learning and skills consolidation, thus accelerating the journey to mastery of their new leadership qualities.

Finally, leadership development now needs to address the fact that the nature of a leader's authority has changed. In today's world leadership is distributed, teams make decisions, consensus is a must. So how do leaders influence when their authority is not a given? Leaders sit on many management teams, boards, and sub-groups, and the ability to use their influencing skills in a different scenario is the challenge. As a result, development specialists must work with a client not on traditional influencing skills but on how to use the already present skill from a different angle.

On demand

Rarely do clients commission a development programme with a clear set of learning goals - they know the problem they face but not how to tackle it or the skills needed to be successful. Even after a session to attempt to elicit learning goals, they may remain fluid.

As educators we need to stop obsessing about pinning down SMART goals. If they're there, great, we'll focus on them, but the majority of clients have to work 'in the moment'. Life moves fast, milestones move, challenges change, priorities shift. Goals set four weeks ago are not important today. We live in an on-demand world where leaders require on-demand learning and support. Many executives gain most insight from direct feedback and take great value from psychometrics, solicited review of their performance and observational feedback.

The conclusion is short and simple. The new world requires learning and development activity to be flexible. Programmes will not be successful if they cling tightly to tried and tested models. Be brave and let them go.

In summary 

  • Develop resilience: dig deep using a systems leadership perspective
  • Help leaders to be collaborative, motivational and in touch - being ruthless and overly directive no longer works
  • Help leaders to think big and collaborate across organisations and sectors
  • Help leaders to develop flexible influential skills
  • Be prepared for ever-shifting goals
  • Be highly adaptable and client-led more than ever, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. 


By Natalie Holt, chartered occupational psychologist.

Find out more

If you would discuss any of the topics covered here or how Capita Health Partners can support your learning and development programmes, please contact Christian Hatton on 07808 013 265 or


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