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Leadership in local government: time for a culture of risk-taking and entrepreneurship

Posted by Emma Cornwall

Emma Cornwall

Risk-takers, entrepreneurs, commercially savvy, collaborative networkers, place shapers, visionary (but humble and authentic) leaders. Just add ‘walk on water’ and you have a pretty intimidating list of attributes that today’s local government leaders are expected to have and display.

The local government landscape is very different to 10 years ago. The impact of this is the need for a different sort of leadership that moves away from the hierarchical, with authority-comes-power approaches of the past. Instead, as a new Management Consultancies Association (MCA) Think Tank report, Local Government – Time for Reinvention recommends – there should be a shift towards a culture of risk-taking and entrepreneurship.

Partnership and integrated working is no longer one way of delivering services, but the only way to tackle the duel challenge of complex socio-economic issues and shrinking resources. Furthermore, as layers of management roles are stripped out, concepts such as ‘self-managing teams’ and ‘pushing accountability to the frontline’ can no longer be concepts – they have to be the way that work gets done.

But my experience of working with many local authorities (and other public sector organisations) is that, particularly at middle management level, leaders are struggling to understand and make real for them what it means to be a risk-taking, entrepreneurial, ‘walking on water’ collaborative leader. Sometimes this displays itself in resistance to the change; sometimes it’s in a hunkering down around their professional expertise area (“at least I know what it means to be a good highways engineer”), and sometimes it’s in a need and want for help and support to make real what can feel like abstract and unattainable attributes and competencies.

When you break down the attributes of the new local government leader, the underpinning behaviours that sit beneath the headlines are a lot simpler than they first suggest.

Take ‘entrepreneurial’. The very word sends shudders down my spine as it brings to mind somewhat unachievable role models from Dragons Den, or the more unpalatable vision of The Apprentice contestants. But at its heart, being entrepreneurial is about looking for and spotting opportunities to do something different, having the confidence to take a risk and do something and having the resilience to bounce back if it doesn’t quite work out. After all, the majority of successful entrepreneurs have won great riches and then lost it all at least once in their career. ‘Collaborative’ leadership at its simplest level is about recognising that one individual cannot have (or needs to have) all the answers or make all the decisions. Instead, the focus is on creating the conditions to enable others, be it team members or other organisations, to deliver the things that they are best set up to deliver.

Creating this entrepreneurial culture is not going to emerge through sending leaders on a series of one day workshops with titles like creativity and innovation for managers. Equipping people with skills and tools will be important. But if local authorities want to embrace a risk-taking and entrepreneurial culture, these headlines need to be first translated into real examples of what these behaviours look like in this organisation.

Learning and development professionals within councils have a critical role to play in both translating the headline statements and commissioning the type of intervention to deliver the right cultural and leadership change. But at a time when local government has endured a disproportionate share of the pain of austerity, the MCA Think Tank also recommend that councils should resist the temptation to reduce training and development budgets, and to ensure value for money, training courses should be audited against current demands – such as the need for partnership working or community engagement.

But the ‘catch 22’ is that to deliver the right cultural and leadership change, local authorities might need to take some risks and be bold and entrepreneurial – without any protocols or guidance.


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