As so often happens, when a leader steps down the fictions they have spun and the milestones of their achievements unravel quickly, as their author cannot maintain the carapace that prevents proper scrutiny and they are seen for what they are.
This is not an attack on the former leader of the County Council, more a reflection on leadership and what it requires for success as it might apply to many leadership roles, but especially in local politics.
I suppose for many political leaders, many of whom fret about “events dear boy, events…” the stress comes from feeling that events are not in their control, and that they are constantly playing catch up with the things that happen and deflect them. The irony is that by focusing on the things that happen today there is an excuse not to have a strategy, or a plan. The excuse would run, “How can I have a plan when it would be deflected by government policy, or lack of it, by crucial staff departures or demand for our services to rise more than we predicted?”
As a result of this mindset any hope of sustaining a strategy or plan evaporates and leading becomes a matter of day-to-day, crisis management. In order to avoid the public (or councillor) perception that this is the case, there develops a style which fosters a surface of calm, appearing to have a response, below which there is a quiet and sustained panic.
Thus a tactical response to events, and things spinning out of control, looks towards managing the next meeting, the next requirement for public accounts, or the next Cabinet report.
This produces a style. The style becomes the substance and the appearance of command, and unconsciously, the maintenance of the style becomes the purpose of the leader.
As a result, there is therefore no embedded course, no path, no plan. The Leader walks a tightrope, vertiginously managing to stay upright whatever wind blows, keeping the audience awestruck, but actually walking backwards and forwards with nothing substantial achieved. When the leader steps off the tightrope, there is nothing remaining but the memory of the high-flying walk, of the performance, not the substance.
More often than not, if there is a legacy of achievement, it is one of damage. Recent national events demonstrate that without me needing to cite examples; more often the legacy sees the world worsened. As I write, we have record numbers of homeless people, a housing crisis that benights the lives of anyone under forty and no guarantees that life saving drugs will reach patients in need after the end of March.
However, sometimes the damage is incidental, not deliberate. A case in point is the Tandridge Local Plan. This was approved just before Christmas so that the 2012 planning guidance, which was felt to impose a lower housing target on local authorities than the 2018 guidance, would be the framework for the Tandridge Local Plan. Some lawyers have offered different advice, but on the evidence the administration at TDC chose the course it did; it remains to be seen whether the gamble will be successful; for gamble it was. I opposed the Plan when it was first proposed in July as it imposed a very high housing target for Caterham, and my Ward in particular, proposing to build on a site in the green belt and a conservation area at the Kenley airfield. I doubt that would have been included if a proper controlling mind was in charge, or, as with a site in Warlingham, it shocked enough Conservative members and was whimsically withdrawn.
The whimsicality remains the weakness of the Plan, and an Inspector may well tear it apart and impose a higher target anyway. For the leadership, without the capacity to scrutinise the plan in the level of detail it required, it was the better of two alternative positions. Adopt it as it was, flaws and all, or trust to an unknown housing target which would not only imperil more of the green belt but also place more sites at risk in our established settlements, including Oxted. Caterham and Warlingham have already been thrown to the wolves.
For the Leader of the Council this was the most sustained challenge of his leadership and he took a well-intentioned course; I believe he was let down by some of the advice he received, but by then it was too late. I abstained on the final vote as we believed that the 2018 NPPF would indeed be worse but we couldn’t support the plan as it stood. We were between a rock and a hard place, as were all in the chamber. Those who say things are simple and clear are usually wrong.
What can this tell us about leadership?
The first priority for any leader is to get the best people in place to advise, and triangulate perceptions of their competence so you don’t find out too late they are wrong.
For Surrey County Council, the absence of this triangulation was not the problem; it was a reluctance to believe the evidence supplied by Ofsted, CIPFA and others. How the Leader was beguiled I can only guess, but beguiled he was. As a result, the council lost at least five years of modernisation time, thus making the cuts it faces now far worse and far deeper than they need have been. It was partly a case of complacency, partly of believing that a little change was larger in impact than it actually was, and partly a matter of arrogance- that he could make something happen that would be impossible.
It was also partly because it is essential for leaders to know what good actually looks like; if they think they know, they need to triangulate that as well, because what is good in year one is inadequate in year four unless there is a constant, trustworthy and independently verified improvement process under way. Heads of schools know this; they live and breathe it.
So what advice could I offer leaders, especially those in local government, for the year to come? As a Group Leader, albeit in opposition on two councils, it will be advice I need to follow myself, though I am not deluded enough to think that the pressures are the same; I say this because I set as my own standard the “what would I do in his/her place?” test, otherwise it is too easy to oppose, too easy to make cheap points for short term political and personal advantage, too easy to gain a false sense of being successful.
Here are the rules I propose. In a year’s time, let’s see if I can claim to have followed them, and who else has!
Make a proper plan for the next five years. It doesn’t matter that the span of it will cross into another electoral cycle, indeed it should, otherwise there is the temptation to make short term, opportunist decisions which will let the electorate down.
Check that the plan is a good one. Not obviously easy. There need to be some tests. Is the plan financially sustainable on the basis of sector wide predictions? Risk assess the various elements of the plan, including the risk of poor advice, staff leaving and wider policy contexts. Is there an improvement programme built in to the plan, with milestones, outcome measures and success criteria? Is there a mechanism for ensuring that unforeseen damage can be caught early and eliminated?
Plan for your successor.
This is not just about you falling under a bus, it is about you setting goals for the term of your leadership, whatever that might be; but it should not be longer than eight years according to the evidence on effectiveness. If you plan for your successor, you will also plan for what you hand over, (those milestones again) thereby being more clear with yourself about where the organisation will be in five to eight years’ time.
Commission independent mid-year reviews. Community focused 360 degree reviews are very powerful. This approach should be the benchmark of your leadership style. (The latest “Consultation” on the forward plan for the County Council was NOT this!) The resources involved will be more than justified. Ensure that your own appraisal targets are verified by independent advice (involve residents!) and are set before you set the targets for the Chief Executive.
Ensure that you have a trusted team around you who are directly empowered to tell you if they think you are wrong. More than one person needs that power, or you will find a collusive atmosphere develops. That is not the equivalent of an annual election for your post as leader- for one thing, there may be nobody (or nobody good) who wants to stand against you. That won’t help the organisation or the electorate.
Always admit your mistakes. In public. Whenever they happen. Close colleagues will trust you more for it, fellow councillors will admire you for it, and you will set a tone that automatically is more transparent, more honest, and more morally centred. Rule 6b says that admitting you are vulnerable, flawed and capable of error can be your greatest strength.
So there we are. Let’s see how the year progresses!
Happy New Year! ��