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Trevor Holden: Leadership means leaving logos and egos at the door

Trevor Holden
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This year has been a challenging year for us in leadership roles.  

Much time and effort is still consumed trying to distil and describe leadership qualities; whether you’re a ‘Branson’ or a ‘Mandela’, or you adopt theories of Sun Tzu or Clausewitz, leadership remains critical to delivery.  

I joined local government after a career in the Royal Air Force to find myself on a corporate team mimicking the less corporate behaviours of its elected representatives. There were sharp elbows everywhere as people struggled to secure resources and demonstrate their power. It was bizarre behaviour, which did little to create a team ethos.  

The advent of combined authorities and collaboration calls for us to lead through influence, rather than power, which some may see as similar to the military. The reality is somewhat different; even in a world where squadrons or regiments are brigaded around badges or hard-won battle honours, they are subordinate to the delivery of a mission with a clear plan that is understood and owned by all. 

In Luton, the plan is the Luton Investment Framework. A clear mission to enhance the life chances of residents. Simple, clear and consistent, it has buy-in from street cleansing to social care. The agenda is about the ‘place and people’ and is co-authored/owned by organisations and businesses across the town.  

Trust and integrity are critical factors in building and maintaining a strong corporate ethos. How often do we hear people say that we need to speak ‘truth to power’ as if it’s some crusade or Holy Grail? This should be the norm for any officer. We don’t do ‘local government speak’ and we provide advice ‘without fear, favour or agenda’, removing any need for ‘clarifications’ or to correct any mis-speaking.

Instructive in this relationship between members and officers is a Society for Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers document ‘Managing in a Political Environment’, which highlights with two concentric circles the overlapping space in which chief executives and leaders work. This is not to suggest that they should mimic one another; rather, these are distinct and complementary roles, based on mutual respect and trust as opposed to some strange coalescence of behaviours.

As a sector we need to move away from experience-based recruitment and find the right balance between potential and experience. In Luton, our people plan, ‘Realise the Remarkable’, is about unlocking the exceptional talent in our staff and attracting the very best in a tightening labour market. Here, authentic and consistent leadership that empowers and encourages is absolutely critical. We need to look at staff as people, not a grade. 

In a changing sector there is no substitute for a clear plan which is well communicated and collectively owned. We need authentic leadership with a congruence of ambition, mutual respect and trust, with the ability to motivate, attract and retain great people, leaving logos and egos at the door.

Trevor Holden, chief executive, Luton BC

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