Like most charities back then, we were incredibly keen, but cheerfully disorganised. After a few days back at the coalface, reality set in and our bright young thing could be heard wandering round the office, muttering: 'Stuff the pursuit of excellence. If I could find the barely competent, I'd be happy.'
I recalled this comment when I saw an advert for the Local Government Leadership Centre, the latest body set up to satisfy the endless demand for more leadership development.
What caught my eye was the strapline for this new organisation: 'The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.' A great soundbite, but is this true?
Don't get me wrong. I think we need more good leaders in the public sector. I can see that different organisations, at certain times in their life cycle, need different models of leadership. I agree that leadership can be taught, up to a point, but I don't believe everyone can be a leader or indeed that we need an infinite supply of them.
Defining leadership is a bit like over-analysing a joke. If you pick it apart too much, you lose its essential quality. Ask anyone selling leadership development for a definition and you'll be dazzled with competency frameworks on emotional intelligence, self reliance, empathy, ability to manage risk and work across boundaries. The problem with these definitions is they read like a new year's resolution list. Who wouldn't aspire to that?
The average competency framework for leadership is now so politically correct that it often ignores the real characteristics of leaders.
Think about the great leaders you have worked with. Who are the people you admired, respected, learnt from and followed over the top with absolute certainty?
Chances are they were single-minded, ruthless, demanding, disorganised, hopeless team players, brimming with arrogant self belief, didn't suffer fools gladly and took risks so big they made a white-knuckle ride feel like a nice lie-down. That was on a good day. And you probably had the time of your life working with them.
You rarely see those qualities in public sector definitions of leadership or indeed in any of those adverts seeking a 'transformational leader' to be chief executive. But you can bet your bottom dollar they're the qualities those nice recruitment consultants are really looking for when they're filling the difficult top jobs.
I'll give you an example from my most recent brush with public services. Over the years, my local health trust has made its unsteady progress from zero stars to one star and back again to zero. I had the misfortune to call on its services last year and it was appalling. The culture of the place was so unhealthy it made me feel ill just going there.
The chief executive left and a new one was recruited. As a patient, if I'd been asked for my definition of the kind of person needed to take the helm, I could have summed it up in three words -a total bastard.
I didn't want someone to come in and empower, facilitate and enable everyone in the organisation to be leaders. I wanted someone to come in and shake the organisation from head to toe.
The problem with a democratic approach which says everyone can be a leader is that it undervalues the contribution of all those who never can, never will and never should be leaders. Management and administration have suddenly become relegated to the status of functions carried out by the drones, while the real stars are off being groomed to become the leaders of tomorrow.
Leadership development has its place in the improvement of public services but it is not a universal panacea. However, it can have one important use. Along with secondment, it's a valuable way of temporarily getting rid of someone who isn't performing.
At least it takes them out of the organisation long enough to restructure the department and bring that total bastard in to sort it out.
Carol Grant, partner,
Grant Riches Communications
LGC's other regular pundit, David Curry