Preface: There are many UK Government Strategies, Manifestos, Advisory Boards, etc. and the list keeps growing each day. Here are just a few of the ones being touted by the UK Government at the moment; UK Digital Strategy, Mayor of London’s Data Strategy, GDS Vision for Gov.uk, GDS Principles for Government as a Platform, CO Government Data Programme, GDS Digital Advisory Board, CO Data Steering Group, UK Data Sharing Consultation, GDS Registry Advisory Board, Royal Statistics Society “Data Manifesto”, ONS Strategy post-Bean Review, etc. You have to ask “what do all of these accomplish in respect to replacing/augmenting authentic leadership?”
Intro: The much ballyhooed UK Digital Strategy is apparently now in tatters. It has now been pushed out until after the BREXIT vote in the Summer, but is an indicator of the greater challenges in Government; A complete lack of competent leadership by the Cabinet Office and the Ministers who have been assigned responsibility for Digital, GDS and Other “transformational” investments. It also bodes disaster for Civil Service mandarins who must manage “the vision” and the budget simultaneously with no top-down leadership or direction.
As I proffer to all my clients whom I coach on Leadership: “You can’t Lead what you don’t Understand”.
Body: A common thread found today in every pronouncement by the UK Government and its Proxies is the role of the Strategy that they have developed, either independently (via consultants) or in consultation with a group of contributors/advisors (all of whom have an agenda seeking fulfillment). Each strategy is heralded as the means to achieve what has previously been unachievable e.g. Transformation; or disruptive in terms of changing the status quo e.g. Digital. According to these pronouncements, “All have been designed for maximum impact with little risk” i.e. Revolutionary. However, most will fail to achieve the desired outcomes which have been promoted to justify the investment or will be terminated altogether due to cost & time overruns, etc. (only to be resurrected later under a different name in many cases) at significant cost to the Treasury (and the taxpayers). Why is this always the case one should ask?
Having been a student of strategy (and its execution) for all of my long career, I find this phenomenon both exhilarating and nauseating at the same time. As you cannot see, I still have the scars of many failed strategies on my back; all of which were a result of bad leadership by my superiors who owned the outcome of the strategy, but were not invested enough to make it a success. In principle, Strategy is only 1% of the overall endeavor, with execution being the remaining 99%. This is the core challenge and the most troubling aspect of what I see so often in Government-Lead Strategies, Manifestos, Advisory Boards, etc. They are big on bluster & hype, but low on energy & commitment by their Leaders to achieving the outcome. One only needs to look at some of the pitchmen aka Leaders who are touting some of these strategies today to see real examples of this first hand.
Strategic Change must be part of every true Leaders portfolio of accountabilities in order for any Organization to grow (at inordinate rates), much less counter competitive threats. However, in politics/government where you have a partnership of the ruling party and the civil service there is always a disconnect, if not outright gulf between what is said and what ultimately is accomplished. To mitigate this risk many governments will engage Consultancies/Systems Integrators to deliver on their promises while they cheerlead from the sidelines and designate Civil Servants to “manage the program” as their proxies. This rarely works out and given the UK Government’s long history of large (and small) programme disasters it seems that few ever learn from these mistakes.
It is worth repeating what I have written many times before in this column; “Leadership must be top-down, hands-on and from those ultimately accountable for both the strategy and its success”. Appointing proxies or hiring contractors as surrogate leaders has never succeeded in the past, and will not in the future. The most important component of Strategic Change is that of the Organization’s Culture itself. An Organization’s Culture is the shadow of its Leaders. It mirrors their Leaders behavior and will support its strategic goals if trust has been sufficiently fostered and they feel engaged (not commanded.
Strategic Leaders must take ownership of all aspects of their strategies and drive their execution to success through both actions and deeds. These Leaders must rise to this challenge no matter what it brings and provide a steady hand through all phases of a Strategy Program, all the while keeping the lights on and wheels turning in the current operating environment. These traits are why I believe that “The mantle of Leadership cannot be learned, it must be earned through blood, sweat, toil & tears”. Most of today’s political leaders (so to speak) have reached their pinnacle of power by dodging accountability while taking glory for the hard work & ideas of others, and are ill equipped to be what I refer to as a Strategic Leader. Their partners in Civil Service, while independent of politics to some degree, are not particularly seasoned Leaders either as the system does not promote risk takers (who might fail) and continues to reward bureaucrats who duck for cover at the first sign of trouble. This creates a true Leadership Conundrum which must be reckoned with in order to succeed.
Leadership is more than a forward-looking vision and a grandiose strategy; it is about delivering on them. Without a crisis to focus on, most Politicians and Civil Servants cannot find it in themselves to rise to be real Leaders. Perhaps that is what many of these strategies need at the moment.
1.- This article appeared in an edited form in the April 2016 issue of Information Age (UK) (www.information-age.uk)
2.- The featured image was taken at IBM’s IOD conference in 2012, but is being used in this context to denote how many so-called Leaders appear in public as they hype their strategic leadership capabilities.