Evolving leadership

17 August 2023

In the third of our series of articles re-presenting our eight Festivals of Governance, Jaco Marais argues that leadership styles evolve, and good leaders adapt to serve the needs of everyone, not just those who agree with them.

The purpose of leadership is to evolve human kindness.

Preacher man don't tell me

Heaven is under the earth

I know you don't know

What life is really worth

Get Up Stand Up by Bob Marley & The Wailers

In our tech-enabled world, where we are connected as never before and it is always possible to find an echo chamber filled with like-minded souls, how should we be led?

It’s easy for politicians – they can play to whichever gallery gives them the best reception – but leaders of public sector organisations charged with the fair provision of services to all have no such luxury. In the case of integrated care systems, they have to simultaneously deliver improved outcomes in population health and healthcare; tackle inequalities in outcomes, experience, and access; enhance productivity and value for money; and help the NHS to support broader social economic development. All while ensuring the smooth delivery of health and care services – and with increasingly constrained budgets. That’s a lot of plates to keep spinning.


Nostalgia can be used to unify or divide us. It is that safe warm feeling of togetherness that can either be seen as a relic of the past or an opportunity to gather in creative collaboration that brings together elements of past and present to create a new future. It often emerges during times of rapid change, uncertainty, or social upheaval, as people seek comfort and familiarity.

Some political leaders use nostalgia to reinforce a sense of national identity and pride. They might evoke memories of past successes, historical greatness, or shared cultural values to foster a sense of unity and purpose among their constituents. This can help create a narrative that can be particularly compelling for voters who feel disillusioned with current circumstances.

Nostalgia is also a cornerstone of nationalist and populist movements, as leaders appeal to a sense of shared history and identity to create a sense of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, fostering a strong sense of belonging among their followers.

It’s also used to protect or restore traditional cultural values and practices that are seen as threatened by modernisation or globalisation. By tapping into people's fond memories of the past, leaders can rally support for preserving cultural heritage, or to rejuvenate or reinvigorate aspects of a nation’s culture or traditional practices.

Leaders’ use of nostalgia can have both positive and negative effects. While it can create a sense of unity and belonging, it can also oversimplify complex issues, distort historical realities, and exclude certain groups from the narrative.

The best type of nostalgia can inspire evolution of the present, bringing forth the best of the past to create a better future. The worst type has us longing in reverse, clinging to fantasies and fearing for the worst. A good leader will inspire others to long for a better future.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained

A lonely heart that can't be tamed

I'm hoping that you feel the same

This is something that I can't forget

I thought that we would just be friends

Things will never be the same again

Never Be The Same by Mel C

Creative collaborative leadership

Every once in a while, a leader emerges with the imagination and abilities to smash through deeply entrenched and apparently intractable issues. Perhaps the best example is Nelson Mandela, whose relentless focus on forgiveness and peaceful coexistence helped to lift South Africa out of the deep divisions of Apartheid towards becoming today’s rainbow nation.

21 years in captivity

Are you so blind that you cannot see?

Are you so deaf that you cannot hear?

Are you so dumb that you cannot speak?

Free Nelson Mandela by The Special AKA

A good leader is open to considering a multitude of perspectives by creating safe spaces for creativity and collaboration – not for the purpose of being first or original but for the purpose of combining what can be learnt from the past in the present circumstances to create a better future.

GGI principal consultant Aidan Rave recently wrote: “Despite the monumental challenges facing public sector leaders, we remain optimistic – but our optimism is tempered by an important caveat. The significance of effective systems leadership has been tacitly and occasionally explicitly acknowledged as the lodestar of place leadership… Indeed, several policies have been predicated on it. But despite some notable success stories, we contend that systems leadership is not yet embedded in the managerial culture of public sector leaders and if the potential of ICBs is to be truly realised, that is going to have to be addressed.”

As Aidan also wrote, a new leadership style is required for integrated care. One that embraces complexity, seeks a deep understanding of all parts of the system, appreciates the importance of the political, economic and environmental context in which it operates, can adapt quickly and pragmatically to fast-changing circumstances, and fully grasps the power of narrative as a means of both mobilisation and establishing trust and credibility.

This new style won’t just appear overnight. It needs to be developed, carefully and conscientiously, and with the psychological safety of those being led at the forefront of leaders’ minds. But the time feels right for this new kind of leadership – there’s something inevitable about it, especially when looked at in the context of how far we’ve come in the evolution of leadership styles.

New world order

Throughout history leadership styles have evolved from informal tribal setups to authoritarian models, then to rationalised systems, inclusive approaches, and networked models, reflecting changes in societal dynamics and technology.

Prehistoric tribal societies chose their leaders informally on the basis of age, wisdom, and consensus within kinship groups. However, the lack of centralised leadership made these tribes vulnerable to conflicts and resource scarcities.

In ancient civilisations like Mesopotamia and Egypt, leadership became authoritarian, often justified by divine ordination. Gods were at the pinnacle, with human leaders ruling through strict hierarchies. Plato's concept of the philosopher king emerged in ancient Greece, though reality often saw periods of tyranny and oligarchy. The collapse of the Roman Empire led to feudal models in Medieval Europe, characterised by land ownership and military power.

The Renaissance and Enlightenment heralded a shift to more rational and sophisticated leadership, adapting classical models to their own circumstances, creating towns and cities that are still the envy of the world today. Monarchs had to justify authority on rational grounds, and Enlightenment philosophers like Hobbes and Kant challenged monarchy and church authority. This paved the way for more democratic models, exemplified by the French Revolution.

Urbanisation and stark economic divides were consequences of the rapid industrialisation of the 19th Century. While trade unionism grew, workplace leadership remained top-down. The tumultuous 20th Century was marked by world wars and depression, giving rise to inclusive leadership models. Post-war, inclusive leaders emerged, prioritising people's needs and societal challenges.

Post-industrial leaders embraced transformational approaches, using emotional intelligence and collaboration – think of the way Steve Jobs combined inspiration with personal control at Apple. Joseph Rost introduced relational leadership as distinct from management, thriving on authenticity and ethics.

Today's digital, globalised world has given voice to the voiceless and presented us with the opportunity to make decisions based on evidence and data. Technology has also enabled a proliferation of uncensored opinion, misinformation and populist disruption, enabling the likes of Donald Trump to capitalise on fears and nationalism.

Leaders who control this enabling technology have extraordinary personal power. Consider how Elon Musk’s Space X was able to step in to offer internet services in war-torn Ukraine via its Starlink satellite service, replacing infrastructure that had been destroyed in the conflict. But of course this also gives Musk the power to turn off the internet in Ukraine if he so desires.

Many would argue that Musk’s ability to control Ukraine’s internet gives too much power to an unelected self-interested party from the other side of the world. If nothing else, the example serves to underline the ongoing relevance of the Nolan principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership – and the importance of not giving too much power to anyone who is not prepared to embrace them.

If this gets any stranger
Things are gonna change
'Cause I can't stand the music
Always lyin'

Liar by New Order

What good looks like

The Seven Principles of Public Life (Nolan Principles) – principle seven, leadership:

“Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour and treat others with respect. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.”

Andrew Corbett-Nolan, chief executive, GGI: “What I want GGI to be remembered for is for its role in redefining governance from a bureaucratic exercise to a discipline that allows leaders from public and third sector organisations to unlock the creative potential of their organisations to do good and create a better, fairer world for the people who rely on their services and the population as a whole.”

The best leaders allow things to be complex without making them any more complicated than they need to be. They consider multiple perspectives, because they know that if they don’t, those they ignore will resurface later to complicate plans. And they actively listen, demonstrate empathy, and embrace creativity. We know we must evolve towards this sort of model as leaders but that doesn’t happen by itself – and it rarely happens quickly.

Another hallmark of enlightened leadership is knowing when and how to ask for help – which is exactly what the leadership team did at Making Space, a national charity providing health and social care services for adults with mental health conditions, learning disabilities and dementia, and their carers.

Making Space CEO Rachel Peacock says: “We commissioned GGI to conduct a root cause analysis into one of our services and subsequently to work alongside the team to strengthen our quality assurance systems from floor to board.”

Rachel is clear about the benefits of drawing on expert impartial perspective. She says: “Without a doubt an independent person will see things that you did not see and if you are truly open to the process this can only be a positive experience. I would add that an unexpected outcome for us working with GGI was the assurance we got about what was working well.

“When we started out on our journey with GGI I expected a good quality governance review with an action plan to support us on our way. We got so much more than that. We got a listening ear when we needed it, new tools to try out in our governance framework and a systems partner who is committed to reminding us of what is working well, along with what to improve.

“Our governance arrangements are much improved, and we continue to strengthen those. As leaders we are communicating more effectively now with a refreshed clarity of each other’s roles and how we all fit together to achieve our social purpose.”

Festival 2023

We’re re-presenting the Festivals of Governance, not just looking at where power lies but now also where responsibility sits. In 2017 we said …leadership is a changing landscape; in 2023 we say: good governance because the purpose of leadership is to evolve.

We need leaders to get it right now, because scarcity is real and we can no longer afford to get it wrong.

Listen to the public good podcast as we explore eight societal themes depicted in past Festivals:

Meet the author: Jaco Marais

Director of Corporate Communications

Find out more

Prepared by GGI Development and Research LLP for the Good Governance Institute.

Enquire about this article

Here to help