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Swim your way to the top

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Becoming a successful leader is not all down to nature there’s a lot of nurture in the form of training too.

Are leaders born or made? Even in the local government sector, the image of the ‘born leader’ who is charismatic, effortlessly takes command and has an opinion about everything is a persistent one. If that doesn’t sound much like you, then the good news is that most leaders are nothing like that either.

In fact, there are as many leadership styles as there are leaders and the most important skill to hone if you want to make the transition from manager to leader is that of knowing yourself, rather than trying get ahead by being Boudicca or Tony Blair.

“Good leaders are often short, fat, ugly people with zero charisma and perhaps even a hygiene problem,” jokes Stephen Taylor, chief executive of the Leadership Centre for Local Government.

“What they do have is an unwavering commitment to what the organisation is trying to do, which they put before self-interest and which rubs off on others. Their energy energises other people, and their honesty and dedication wins other people’s support.”

Most leaders 'made'

Dr Mark Pegg, director of the public leadership centre at Ashridge Business School, agrees that leadership can be customised, though some people are more receptive to learning this skill than others.

“Some leaders are born, but most are made,” he says. “Trying to increase self-knowledge is important it does help to know whether you are an introvert or an extrovert.”

Far from ‘fixing the problem’ if you find your natural style is quiet and retiring, Dr Pegg believes that people need to realise that both extrovert and introvert personalities have something to offer. He also says leaders should be vigilant about not letting their personality traits dominate the way they work.

“Introverts might be more comfortable speaking to a few people at a time, rather than addressing large groups. But what they should avoid doing is sitting in their office thinking great thoughts,“ he says. Equally important, he adds, is that extrovert managers should make sure they listen to colleagues and do not become domineering.

Commentators, including cabinet office minister Ed Miliband, have stressed that local authorities need ‘adaptive management’ which is a structured process in which leaders make the best decisions in times of uncertainty and strive to reduce uncertainty by monitoring the systems they have in place.

“Without adaptive management, the figures won’t add up, whether it’s about dealing with migration, social care, counter-terrorism or the ageing population,” Dr Pegg says. The good news is that being adaptive is a skill that can be learned.

Time and training

Similarly, when attempting to become a better manager, not even the best leadership course will give immediate results. Becoming a more effective manager takes time and training. Peer review, work shadowing, coaching and mentoring are all essential.

No leader ever arrives at a point when they know everything. According to cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell, “we are never the finished article”.

But it’s all too easy to assume once you have been a senior manager for long enough, all the ‘making’ that has gone into your leadership style is in the past. The Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development has found that the over-50s have significantly less management training than their younger colleagues.

As head of human resources at Somerset CC, Richard Crouch experiences the tensions of local government leadership at first hand. Mr Crouch, who is also lead officer on organisation development and leadership at the Public Sector People Managers’ Association, points out that local authority leadership might be more complex than it used to be, but there is no way of ducking the responsibility.

“In today’s local government climate there is a much higher level of stakeholder reliance on our leaders than there was in the past. Stakeholders want our leaders to lead from the front, but with a higher level of sophistication and subtlety.”

And this more subtle style of leadership will suit those who have learned to put their real personality into their role. Mr Crouch says: “Leaders who have to adapt to a style they are less comfortable with are bound to be less confident. However, it may be worth taking one step back to ‘be yourself’ and then adapt your style, rather than trying to clone yourself onto what you think others think you should be.”

This means having the courage to trust your team and delegate meaningful responsibility. Good leaders learn how to make their vision more effective by listening to staff, rather than micro-managing their every move.

“Both nature and nurture are critical in developing and creating leaders,” says Mr Crouch. “Evidence of this is plain to see, whether demonstrated by politicians and officers in local government or indeed by our children taking leadership roles in the school playground. But is being a leader child’s play? Unfortunately, the simple answer is no, far from it.”


  • Develop self-knowledge and be aware of your preferred way of working

  • Communicate and learn from your colleagues

  • Be adaptive and open minded about new allegiances

and don’ts

  • Worry excessively about personality traits being an introvert is not an illness

  • Micro-manage and nanny your team

  • Assume that existing models of local government management are the only way to work

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