Climbing (and falling from) the greasy pole…

How do we measure a good leader?

This must have been debated at every level of the service at length. I have been party to some interesting conversation on garage forecourts at 4am around who has been promoted and who hasn’t, as many cops probably have. Everyone has an opinion, but the consensus often falls onto a ‘good/bad’ footing at some point. The promotion system is often discussed in a very derogatory way by officers at the sharp end. Many have little faith in it and will almost always state that it is one of the reasons they will never try for a leadership position.

So what do good and bad look like? What does a competent leader look like? Well this is a tough question and one that is very open to subjectivity. There are some really contemporary thoughts on this in current literature, looking at concepts like ‘Stewardship’ and ‘Followership,’ with older theories espousing various forms of Heroic Leadership and grip/control. Theory aside, many will state, ‘I know a leader when I see one,’ and perhaps this is the best way to define it, as a good leader is often defined by how those they are leading see them. This -of course- means that there will be many different kinds of leaders in many different walks of life.

The below is a very quick image from Kotter (who is a pretty well known guy in mgmt theory).

IMG_0105

It may not be a surprise to think that most of the supervision that cops experience fall on the Mgmt side. There are other graphics that exchange the words ‘Mgmt.’ for ‘Boss.’ Either way, if you think that the biggest influence on Police Leadership has been New Public ‘Management‘ for the last 15-20 years, it stands to reason that Mgmt. as a leadership style has won out. This does not mean that there are not charismatic managers and managers that inspire and support their staff. I know of several who do and are excellent from an anecdotal perspective. It does however indicate that a strong weighting may be present due to the 30 year police employment tenure. If all you have known is Mgmt., and all the bosses want from prospective leaders is to display ‘strong’ Mgmt., then all you will end up with is more managers. This presents an interesting conundrum, and one that I discussed in my last blog around a reactive policing style favouring a command style of leadership. Does a heavy Mgmt. structure favour only managers? What if you are a great leader? You certainly represent more risk than usual.

This can be referred to as Prototype Leadership, or a situation within an organisation where those higher in the hierarchy will select those that they feel most affinity with. In short, bosses will promote bosses who look and act like them. This ensures safety, consistency of delivery, and absolutely no rocking of the proverbial boat. It is by no means particular to policing and happens in many careers on a regular basis.

Now where people stumble, is that criticism of such a process often relies on an assumption that the bosses do this consciously. ‘They only choose people that are like them.’ Although this may actually be true in terms of outcome, in that self-selection does occur, it is often completely unconscious and very difficult to ‘self check.’ Those funny generalisations start to come out to explain it when discussing promotion, like, ‘I think they are ready,’ or ‘I feel safe with him/her in charge.’ It is those generalisations that begin to hint at unconscious bias, and not being aware of it can be hazardous to the future of the organisation, because self selection drastically limits the propensity to change…

I don’t want to drag this part of the conversation out, but research of candidates during promotion processes showed that those candidates who displayed creativity in problem solving were AUTOMATICALLY thought of by selectors as having less leadership potential. What is happening here? The selectors are selecting ‘safe.’ What are the long term implications of this? Well, unless this particular unconscious bias is addressed, creativity is filtered out of candidates or the creative candidates are filtered out themselves.

What are the implications for the future of any organisation who has large amounts of prototype leadership? If you were in private industry the market would overtake the business and it would die. In the public sector? Stability and consistency, whilst the world accelerates on passed it. It could be said that attempts to address the changing profile of crime (i.e. huge increase in use of technology) have fallen victim to ‘safe hands’ management, augmented by archaic procurement bureaucracy and an unwillingness to utilise external skills. This is however complete speculation…

How do we address this problem? It’s unconscious, it results in stability, it’s consistent for the public… Should we change it? Is it a bad thing for a public service? The answer again lies in diversity. The same research as discussed above, showed that activating the ‘Creative Leader’ prototype addressed the problem. This basically means saying, ‘Hey, selector people, creative candidates can make really good leaders, can we have some of them too?’ This means that the current Leaders asking for creative candidates from selectors may actually result in a large shift in the kind of leaders selected.

It’s kind of like giving permission or empowering selectors to look for difference in candidates…

This is where the benefits start to kick in, balancing risk taking leaders who inspire, with managers who help keep them grounded and ensure that checks and balances are in place, sounds like a good combination for the public doesn’t it? So change is there, but it isn’t too crazy…

Putting people in the boardroom who aren’t always ‘safe’ is a good way to grow, not just in the organisation, but personally too. Difference in our leader profiles is therefore necessary for healthy challenge and change. All that is left then, is to organise/develop a system of selection that allows flexibility, where individuals are selected for role, and not for rank. This in turn, may make that pole a little – just a little – less greasy.

That however, is a whole new blog.