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The Challenge of Leadership in Leeds

August 17, 2010

One of the big challenges of leadership is that, once you assume it, you are there to be shot at.

It is not necessarily that people want to bring you down.  But they do want to know that ‘the leaders’ know their stuff, that they are credible.  That they are worth following on a journey.  That they deserve the commitment of discretionary time and effort too.  That it will all make a positive difference in the end.

In leadership, you have to earn your followers…

The problem is further compounded if:

  • leaders choose to more or less replicate a leadership process that the last time around didn’t pull up any trees
  • there is even a whiff of a suspicion that this is not a genuine attempt at leadership but a bit of a box-ticking exercise undertaken at the behest of ‘head office’
  • there is no clarity about how a vision, once developed will be used to really engage and mobilise the talent, skills and resources of all stakeholders
  • different opinions, instead of being heard, are simply denied and refuted

When some of these conditions are met, then vision based leadership becomes very, very difficult.  Attempts are likely to be met with, at best, ‘passive aggression’.  And I think that this is the situation facing us in Leeds at the moment with the Leeds Vision 2030 process.  It is a situation that faces many leadership teams.

People are giving up time and money to engage in a leadership process that should be a very high stakes game for the city.  Shaping our international profile, providing a platform for a socially just society, rising to an array of carbon and environmental sustainability challenges and delivering an economy that works, are just a few of the opportunities and challenges that the process needs to address.

This is why I think some people, myself included, were disappointed when we first saw the new ‘Leeds Owl‘  and strapline that have been developed to brand the Vision 2030 exercise.  Personally I think that Phil Kirby’s criticisms are justified. So too Lee Hickens.  And I have made some observations about the symbolic meaning of the owl. In what is a multi-cultural and international city we should show some sensitivity and awareness of what our city symbol means in parts of Japanese, Hindu and African history.

There are all sorts of things that the council is now doing that I think show signs of progress.  Setting up facebook pages and twitter feeds for example.  Far more council staff seem to be really engaging, online and off, in some of the stuff that is happening in the city.   But these tools are double edged swords.  Reputations take a long time to build online and can be very quickly lost.  They will certainly surface more and more critical responses (let’s face it few of us find the time to write a response that says ‘Great work, keep it up!’) than more traditional and ‘managed’ consultations

But it seems there is still astro-turfing going on.  It can be tricky to sort out the authentic voices.  And web2.0 savvy folks will forgive many things – but bad design and perceptions of inauthenticity are not amongst them!

I believe the ‘What If Leeds…’ logo debate is only partly about the aesthetics and meaning of the brand.

It is, for me at least, much more importantly a signifier of a very important question.  Can we work with Leeds City Council and its mechanisms for exercising leadership in the city, or should this be a DIY job?  We just keep on organising and doing what we can to shape life in the city by doing our own stuff.

Is the council a credible and trustworthy partner for local people already running themselves into the ground doing what they can.  Or will it just sap our time, energy and morale?

Will the engagement continue once the Vision is developed, bound and on the shelf?

Personally I am very optimistic that the appointment of Tom Riordan shows a real willingness to engage and partner more effectively.  But there is a lot to learn on both sides if we are to make this work.

At the moment I think Leeds is a more exciting City than it has been for a long time.  Interesting things are happening at the grass-roots in business, culture, community development, marketing and technology.   And, if we can get the engagement with the council right, we might be able to pull off something of real importance for the city.   But we must have confidence in those we engage with and their ability to manage effectively the complex process for strategic change that they have chosen to use.  And we must earn their trust too.  This is a two-way process.

It is not just about ‘us’ going on a journey with ‘them’.  It is about all of us journeying together.  Learning has to be done on all sides.

Or should we just go it alone?

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2 Comments
  1. Great post Mike.

    I agree it is good to see the council and other decision makers making themselves available and beginning to interact more within social networks. The next stage is for advice and criticisms to be taken on board and discussed, that is the more difficult stage.

    After meeting with numerous people within Leeds and industry in recent weeks, I am very much leaning towards the strategy of ‘cutting out the middle man’. Bureaucracy is very time-consuming, and most definitely morale-sapping, as more often then not the sentence begins with “we cant do that because…” rather then “ok so what do we need to do to make this happen”

    By speaking directly with private business and making things happen, I am already making great strides with certain projects by simply going to meet business leaders and explaining how collaborations could work and why they can be mutually beneficial. These businesses can then make a decision and away we go!

    I too have hopes that Tom and other members of the council will stimulate change and take some chances, but in the meantime I am going to go out there and try and make stuff happen!

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