Leading in times of crisis

13 February 2024

Aidan Rave says good leadership has never been more important

Leadership has always fascinated me. I’m not sure why that is; possibly because I became interested in politics and politicians at a young age—far too young to be considered healthy.

In our house, the six o’clock and then nine o’clock news were the absolute certainties of the day. These were the days before rolling news, of course, and whatever was going on, if we were home, my dad would simply never miss the news. I guess osmosis did the rest for me.

Despite this lifelong fascination, I’ve always struggled with descriptions of leadership. It always feels like one of those subjects that attracts messianic quacks, with their five-minute revelatory guides on YouTube followed by the offer of a subscription service that will provide all the answers.

Nature or nurture?

Of course there are more serious attempts at defining and codifying the craft, but I’ve always tended towards the nature argument: that true leadership is to some extent innate, and while, like anything, you can practice to get better, if the basic components aren’t in place, then you can’t fabricate the rest with books, videos or blogs (including this one).

Nevertheless, over the years I’ve had the privilege of working with and around some fine leaders, and based on my own observations, one characteristic does hold true. The best leaders have the ability to, as Kipling said, “…keep your head, while all those about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…”

If you will forgive a football analogy, it always makes me think of the serenity of the great midfielders such as Charlton, Zidane, Pirlo and the like, who looked like they were playing in slow motion while the other players were frantically dashing around them.

It is this ability to remain resilient, insightful, strategic and assured during a time of crisis that is particularly significant at the moment. Because, boy oh boy, do we have some existential crises to deal with.

Sense of crisis

For most of my career, I’ve been involved in local government—long enough to have seen the effects of pre- and post-austerity on the sector—while latterly, I’ve been spending more time with senior teams across the NHS. Across both of these sectors, there is now a palpable sense of crisis, driven in large part by the familiar foes of surging demand and stretched resources, but at a level of intensity that few, if any, have ever been confronted with before.

I’ve observed individuals suffering from the mental and physical effects of this onslaught, while teams fray at the edges as the relentless pressure of doing ever more with fewer resources bites. It’s as tough as it’s been in a long time and aside from anything else, I think we need to acknowledge that.

In the midst of this, leadership is more important than ever. It’s important because leadership is a test of resolve and the ability to remain measured and collected no matter what the challenges might be. It’s important because there are still organisations to lead, worried staff to reassure and, above all for public servants, critical needs to meet. It’s also important because history suggests that it is often at the times of the deepest crises that opportunities for progress arise and despite the depth of the crisis facing leaders of organisations that serve the public good, now is no different.

The potential of AI

Take AI, for example. The Alan Turing Institute says that “AI has huge potential to help government deliver services that are more responsive, efficient and personalised.” Many prominent thinkers and practitioners have long been vaunting the potential impact of technology on the health and care sectors and perhaps now is the point of confluence between the availability of relevant technology and the sheer pressure to find new and different means of delivery in a time of scarcity.

Just to be clear, I’m not trying to make the proverbial silk purse out of a sow’s ear by suggesting this, and I’m certainly not suggesting that the current crisis is anything other than a clear and present danger to the millions of people whose lives depend on good public services.

I am, however, suggesting that at times like these, the very best leaders are able to still look to the horizon with purpose and equanimity. They will deal with the challenges of today but still find the time to identify the opportunities of tomorrow.

GGI has a long track record of working with boards and senior teams to give them the space and time to not only revive but also optimise their strategic capacity, enabling them to navigate the current tumult while retaining their ability to harness the opportunities that it brings. Now is a good time to make that commitment.

Meet the author: Aidan Rave

Principal Consultant

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

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