Luke Blair: When a leader's colours truly show

Extraordinary times breed extraordinary leaders and, as various parts of the public sector have become ever more difficult to manage recently, we have seen a lot of different leadership styles of late.

Luke Blair: All eyes are on a leader in challenging times
Luke Blair: All eyes are on a leader in challenging times

Some have been good, some less so, and each of us has our own stories about leaders seen close at hand when pressures have demanded they step up to the plate and show what they’re made of.

I hesitate to say that this is when we see them earn their salary because of course, in the public sector, one must not talk of high salaries lest we incur the wrath of the Daily Mail, but you get the point.

Indeed, whole schools of personality and character analysis have been based on the assumption that the behaviour we revert to when under pressure is what truly defines us. 

It is not ‘business as usual’ but ‘business unusual’ which defines who we are.

One thing is certain – when large organisations in the public sector are under stress and strain, their leaders are studied very, very closely indeed, particularly by their own staff.

And when those staff find themselves under the same pressure, it is their leaders’ behaviour which they copy.

And so the first rule of being a good public sector leader is knowing that everyone is studying your every step and nuance, every gesture and phrase, and will be copying those characteristics at some point – more so when the organisation is under pressure than at any other time.

There is also a ‘domino’ effect here which management schools have different names for, whereby each manager working under each leader passes on those same characteristics. In internal comms you might call it a cascade system.

In behavioural terms, and organisationally, it can be as impressive as synchronised swimming – or a complete disaster if someone gets it wrong somewhere along the way.

The best leaders all know this, know they are role models, and understand that people learn from studying others and from studying them in particular, and then try to emulate what they think is the best way to behave.  After all, if their leaders do that, then surely they should, too?

The best leaders also know that there is never a ‘perfect’ model and that they need to be constantly receptive to improving what they already do – no-one gets it right first time and the best never stop learning.

One of my own personal role models, I’m told, is forever thinking about their own behaviour, querying it, and wondering if it could have been better.

So none of this is an exact science, but one of the few things we can be sure of is that man is an imitative animal (just ask any parent) and that therefore, the higher we go, the more people we manage, and the more pressure we come under, so we have to be ever more careful about the way we behave.

Leadership is about responsibility and that main responsibility is to set as good an example as we can about the way we want others to behave. Because, in the end, they are all a reflection of ourselves.


Luke Blair is a director at London Communications Agency.

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