The Art of Blending Leadership

Feb 13, 2023

When I think about what it means to have ‘political nous’ – an essential when working in and with institutions led by politicians – I often think it comes down to the ability to operate in situations that are complex, with rules and conventions which can be, by turns, both flexible and immutable. Whether something is politically acceptable or not can change with the political winds, and the uncertainty of that can be unsettling, for politicians, officials, and broader society alike. I am not sure there is anything that completely takes that uncertainty away, but people who have good political nous have developed strategies for making sense of it, and energetically employ those strategies in how they operate.

As someone who has been on ‘both sides’ (a problematic framing in some ways if not others) of politically led organisations, I have had plenty of space to reflect on my own political nous, and how I apply it in practice. I shared some of my experiences in a recent seminar with students at the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV), and I am going to focus on one element of that seminar in this blog – namely, that politicians need other types of leader around them to succeed, and that blending those different approaches in a way which doesn’t cause unmanageable political tension is a practice that has no end.

My understanding of how to achieve this blend was probably a little cartoonish before I became a councillor – but I had a few different experiences during that time that gave me a clearer understanding of where different types of leadership intersect. It was fortunate that I took a route into politics that started with community – in around 2009, I had decided that I wanted to give something back to a place that I loved living in, so joined a few community groups – starting with Moseley Forum, and developing into many, many others. Moseley was and is a place where lots of people had the bandwidth to think collectively about how they shaped and developed their own place, and a place where people knew how to pull the levers of power.  As such, active citizenship in Moseley was infused with hope and possibility, and I learned from both the expertise and the hope. I learned what barriers felt like when it came to local services. I also learned about authenticity, about what it looks like in practice when people act in the interests of place and people ahead of self. Crucially, I saw that while it cannot replace the democratic accountability of local government, active citizenship brought an agility and depth that could both complement and clash with both its elected and appointed elements.

This meant that when I entered party politics – as a council candidate, then an elected member, I knew that the power I was borrowing from the people I represented was not the only game in town, and therefore the existence of other power was not a threat to me. It was the privilege of my life to be elected to represent such people, and they both challenged me and made my life immeasurably easier through their work. For example, I could stand on a stall at the local farmers’ market, addressing community issues, because the people of my community had invested of themselves to create the farmers’ market, which drew in people who might never have otherwise turned up to public meetings. Their power did not need my authority, but we could work together for the same purpose.

So – when I started to come across different types of council officer – I also understood that their creativity, initiative, and values were also in the mix with my borrowed power. We councillors were reliant on officials to help us shape our thinking on the ways in which our political objectives could, or couldn’t, become a reality. We were reliant on them to have longer memories than we did, both institutionally and within their own professions and disciplines. Perhaps more fundamentally, and all new councillors will recognise this feeling – I was confronted with the full force of everything I didn’t know about local government, public services, and the people who needed us, and needed officials to be able to lead alongside us, sharing their expertise and boosting our confidence to develop our own.

My feelings on this matter received an early test. I was elected while Birmingham City Council was experiencing intervention from central Government, in various forms. One element of this commenced with a review of Birmingham’s governance led by now Lord Kerslake. One quote from this review was thus:

there is a blurring of roles between members and officers. The relationship needs to be reset and officers given the space to manage.

This observation was not unthoughtful, or inaccurate. But it was interpreted unhelpfully by the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel, which interpreted it as officers having nothing to offer in the leadership space, and that is not how things work in practice. Even the most inspiring political leaders need senior officials who can help to craft their vision into something workable and tangible – and through that process you get something that is more than the manifesto commitment. It changes form. It brings in new dimensions, new people, and resources. This interpretation of political leadership desperately craved a world that is simpler than the one we live in and meant that the art of the ‘blend’ was at risk of being lost.

When I became an officer several years later, I had cause to resurrect the art of the blend. When I was tasked by the political leadership of the WMCA to help it build out its approach to inclusive growth, I did not have a detailed blueprint, with the politics and the detail spelled out. Nor did any other institution. I had some consolidated research on different approaches to inclusive growth, and a political steer that we should probably do something about it. As an official, in that situation, it would have been unacceptable for me not to contribute, for me not to lead – I had to take soundings from civil society groups, I had to think about the various models and their implications, I had to tailor them to our context. Finally, I had to do the hard, iterative work of supporting people, both politically and otherwise, to apply and understand the model as it applied to all the different things that Mayoral Combined Authorities do or could do. I had to do the blend – not because I didn’t have political leadership, but because I had been employed to use my initiative and values to back our political leadership.

If we shy away from the reality of how leadership works in practice, we create space only for Directors and Chief Executives who tell their Leaders that things are simpler or more complex than they are, Leaders who instruct their Directors and Chief Executives regardless of reality, or for communities to lose faith in both elected leaders and their officers – and we all deserve better than that. We deserve people who have invested into perfecting the blend.

This is one dimension of what I am reflecting on as we design and deliver the Leadership Centre’s offer to places and cohorts of leaders. To quote my colleague Debbie Sorkin, “we are the Leadership Centre, not the Leaders’ Centre” – and I am looking forward to inviting as many people as possible to share how they blend, and to learn from others as they do.

Claire Spencer


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