Some years ago I fronted a public consultation meeting on reconfiguring older people’s services in a locality. In my naivety I failed to completely appreciate the anxiety that would be caused by the closure of a pretty outmoded, but still popular, residential home.
One angry man jumped up and shouted that he cared about people; the implication being that I didn’t. It was a reminder that to gain and sustain people’s confidence we have to start by looking at their aspirations, worries and perceptions; and not our own agendas, which can come across as stultifying and detached from reality.
Arguably I’d fallen into the trap of thinking that all we need to do is to apply our consultation mechanisms and all will be well. Sure, as accountable leaders we need agreed and transparent ways of doing things, but are we brave enough to hold real debates, however challenging, and stop hiding behind bureaucratic walls?
The best leaders that I encounter are those who recognise their prime responsibility: that of creating the conditions for success and asking what their organisation’s role is within that. But this can seem counter-intuitive. As leaders, to justify ourselves and our organisations, it’s perhaps more comfortable to be seen as taking tough decisions and resolving intractable problems.
But think of the impact that this ‘leave it to me’ approach actually has. It’s perhaps much like a parent-child relationship, when what we need more than ever is an engaging style that doesn’t pretend to have all the answers about what makes the best use of our organisations and communities. Instead, as a chief executive colleague recently said, we need to understand how best to engage with communities and to use the local resources, which often exist unrecognised and unsung. I’m convinced that this is a good way to generate and sustain the trust and confidence we need in these challenging times.
Back to the angry man. In effect, statutory agencies had inadvertently and unintentionally disempowered people like him and we went on to pay the price. Funding issues for health and social care, and local government more broadly, are very real, but they are at least forcing us to redefine what good leadership styles can do to best prepare us for the uncertainties of the future.
Tony Hunter, chief executive, Social Care Institute for Excellence