Leading Wales into the new normal

Covid-19 has given rise to a new set of champions. Alongside healthcare professionals and frontline workers rapidly adapting to new ways of working, are the friends and neighbours who have rallied to care for their communities. Businesses large and small have re-engineered their organisations to move services online, produce vital equipment, supplies and new solutions in this time of crisis.

But what can be said for those in charge – the leaders?

2020 is proving to be a testing time for everyone and many have risen admirably to the challenge. However, will others be exposed?

In the words of author Robin Sharma, “anyone can lead when the plan is working, the best lead when the plan falls apart.”

Leadership through recovery and into the “new normal” was explored in the second Cadenza Conversation, a series of discussions set up by the Wales-based consultancy to create a safe space for exploring what matters to organisations delivering public service outcomes.

It recognised, that amidst the tragic consequences, this enforced change to how we live our lives is generating positive results. The pandemic has proved the catalyst for implementing change that has been waiting in the wings for years. It’s reinforced well-founded principles about what it takes to deliver change and is teaching us even more. But are leaders prepared to learn the lessons?

Already, post-lockdown planning is almost entirely rooted in “service recovery”. We cannot simply go back to the way things were: having embraced online learning, GP consultations and use of social
media to combat social isolation. We cannot just phase these developments back out. So how do we balance getting things back on track whilst mainstreaming the positive impacts of change in building a new normal for all our futures?

The broad ranging conversation considered everything from sustaining changes to the way we commute, buy our food, procure goods, promote positive mental health and keep the gates open to community coproduction, three consistent challenges for leadership of a new normal emerged.

Brave leadership devolves decision-making

Are leaders in Wales confident enough to accept that they do not hold all the answers and competent in reflecting on where their personal strengths sit and where gaps exist? Can they build and lead diverse teams – some of whom will exceed their capabilities?

As a leader, responding to the current changes, where have you tightened or loosened controls and what has happened as a result? Where the consequences have been positive, will you continue as-is?

Where they are not, what have you learned and how have you responded? For example, many governing bodies have had to adapt their decision-making processes, reduce the number of voices involved, facilitate decision-making at lower levels in the organisation and even relax the rules and raise the limits of delegated powers?

Scrutiny and audit is now well-recognised for its role in either facilitating or blocking innovation – the benefit of hindsight is wonderful, but critical friend challenge through supportive check and challenge is of greater value. Audit Wales’ Good Practice team is already looking at how innovation happens in a time of crisis. Often it’s chaotic, but the assurance we seek is that the real and critical risks have been well-managed. Without trust or pragmatism you either over control or close the stable door after the horse has bolted. The role of a leader is to create the conditions that enable decision-making by those best placed to make them, sometimes providing but more often facilitating co-production of the answers.

Developing leadership at every level – across organisations and across communities

“True and genuine leaders are not nominated, voted-in or appointed. True and genuine leaders emerge from a crisis”, according to scientist and author Peterson Simbotue.

Who are your true and genuine leaders? Have you identified them in your organisation or communities – the people who make things happen despite everything?

Leadership isn’t a rank or reward. It is an inherent quality that rises to the fore when needed. Some communities and businesses have successfully adapted because leadership is present within them. Understanding what allowed leadership to come to the fore is as critical as creating the conditions that allow it to thrive beyond the crisis.

Wales has a strong sense of community and an active foundational economy. The Conversation delegates spoke passionately about the concept of relational equality contributing to a more equal Wales. The need to recognise, sustain and build upon the sense of community in recognising the fundamental role of the foundational economy (and our reliance upon it) is a role of leaders in every aspect of public service delivery.

Creating headspace

Being busy is not the same as being productive. Leaders need to create time to think, explore, engage, involve, inspire and be inspired by others.

Developing the space to lead is as much of a precursor to creating the new normal as involving others in developing and delivering it.

Pressing challenges for public service leaders as we emerge from crisis will surely include:

  • Homelessness: people have been swiftly moved off the streets and into otherwise empty accommodation. Is this a sustainable solution? How will leaders ensure we do not simply dump people back to their previous invisible anonymity?
  • Sustainability: lock-down has been temporarily kinder to the planet. Will its benefits translate to practical change in office hours, home-working, business travel and use of materials that deliver a step change in climate change ambitions?
  • Communities: Covid-19 has captured energy, compassion and drive. How will our traditionally paternalistic public service leaders harness people-power to sustain their own action without constraint of well-intentioned and auditable controls?

A timely post-script to The Cadenza Conversation is Welsh Government’s appointment of Counsel General Jeremy Miles AM to lead Wales’ recovery. Mr Miles has already been tasked to deliver Wales’ transition from EU membership. As First Minister Mark Drakeford says, “this vital work will impact areas of Welsh peoples’ lives; it will be profoundly important for public services, for the economy and society.”

Welsh Government has an opportunity for leadership by example, embracing co-design for the new normal. This crisis has re-emphasised that leadership comes from unexpected places. The role of Welsh Government and those it charges with all our futures must be to engage, embrace and nurture new approaches in building a better and more equal Wales for all.

Cadenza Conversations are a mechanism for bringing sectors together to define the solutions to the challenges and opportunities facing organisations as they deliver services for today and improved outcomes for tomorrow.

K Carr/K Cherrett