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Blair McPherson: Austerity has encouraged autocratic leadership

Blair McPherson
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If I was still a council director, I would be a very ‘bad’ director.

The chief executive would be telling me my attitude was unhelpful, unprofessional and inappropriate.

Meanwhile, the trade union would be saying, “at last, a senior manager who is prepared to say how it is” – not that this would save me. The unwritten rule is that it is beholden on a senior manager to always be positive, whatever your private views. All too often these days, to express dissent is to be considered disloyal.

The ‘bad’ manager is overconcerned with the business case, has inflexible professional values, and is way too fond of referring to the equal opportunity policy or identifying contradictions between the latest directive and other directives. But what marks the ‘bad’ manager out from the simple incompetent is the unnecessary risks they take, such as asking an unwanted question.

My own particular form of unnecessary risk-taking was writing articles for the professional press. It started when I was a social worker writing about working with people with dementia.

Sharing the article with my line manager before submitting it for publication simply caused them a problem. My manager would want the assistant director’s approval. The article would be passed to the communications team and would end up reading like a press release and be turned down by the publication.

Management preferred me not to ask permission. That way they could not be accused of censorship nor could they be accountable for my actions.

I wrote about management development, championing equality and diversity, promoting best practice and working in a political environment. Whilst never directly critical of my own authority, I did like to push the boundaries.

On one occasion, writing about the introduction of personal budgets, I suggested the idea had been “oversold and under-delivered”. My boss described this as “unhelpful”. He was not so much concerned about the reaction of our own staff but about drawing unwanted attention from the inspectorate, which may have sought to question the authority’s commitment to this particular government policy.

In today’s ideologically-driven, budget-challenged culture, chief executives and leaders have become less tolerant of those who disagree or express doubts. Prolonged austerity has encouraged a more autocratic leadership style. The prevailing view is that since the only options are unpleasant, there is no point in debate, which may explain why there appear to be fewer ‘bad’ senior managers around.

Blair McPherson, former director, Lancashire CC

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