Which City?

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Leaders who listen, that's what we'd like.

We should all be students -  with open minds, eager to question and learn all the time. We may not see the whole picture, our ideas might be only partially formed, but better to wonder than to think we know it all.
I had the pleasure and privelege to spend an hour and a half with 35 students from Sheffield Hallam University yesterday. I am biased about Sheffield Hallam, my own alma mater , where I now sit on the Board of Governors and where my son is a student. Bubbling under the top 50, it is a warm-hearted, pragmatic, energetic place filled with students who want to learn and want to do well.
In partnership with Common Purpose, the University provided a four day Frontrunner programme aimed at helping second and third year students to secure sandwich placements or permanent jobs in a very competitive market. This group was from the Development and Society faculty on courses within my range of interests - architecture, housing, politics, law  - and I shouldn't have been at all surprised by the incisiveness and insight shown by their questions.
My short presentation on UK government and governance looking at structures for decision making,  current issues in Coalition policy and standards in public life provoked a great range of questions:

Who did I think social housing was for?
What did I think of the NHS reforms?
Would we be better with a Consititution?
Was the EU an administrative and legislative burden?
Why was it so difficult to cut out waste in public services?
Why couldn't 10% less be spent on war and reinvested in universities?
Why couldn't Sheffield Hallam make up the loss of government grant from private investment?
Where I had I found it most difficult to help an organisation change?
Why did power go to peoples' heads?

This last question perhaps fuelled by questions which were about the qualities that we look for in leaders and our expectations of their behaviour and whether there are differences in elected and appointed leaders?

In discussion, we concluded, I think, that the evidence shows that there are pros and cons for election and appointment of leaders and decision makers, and both groups can corrupt, be corrupted, be led astray or just not be very good.

What makes a good leader is a topical question which we thought about and there was an interesting comment from a student that a charismatic leader isn't much use if he can't deliver - Obama and health reform in the USA being her case in point.

These students weren't over impressed by loud leaders, flashy leaders, leaders who promised a lot but delivered little. They were more interested in leaders who listened, who were honest about why things couldn't happen, who involved people in the thinking that led up to decisions and in the taking of decisions.

This is fair, but it is challenging. In leadership roles we think we have to be brave, to take things on, to show the way, to make things happen. We are worried that uncertainty, hesitation, deliberation can be seen as weakness. This is why we sometimes fear consultation and involvement, and why even when we pause to take on other views, we want to rush to announce what we are going to do even before the pause is over.

Listen to the wisdom of the young, share our thinking -  own the decisions together.

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