The future of government: leadershape-shifting

Our Chief Officer for Regeneration and Culture, Kellie Beirne, writes on her vision for the direction of government – leadership that adapts to changing circumstances.

“My recent blog posts on entrepreneurial leadership in the public space and our Creative Council’s (NESTA)-inspired intrapreneurship programme got me thinking about what public service leaders of the future might look like.

To look forward I think back to my starting place in public service when autocracy and ‘hard power’ was de riguer. There was a specific and distinct style of leadership that I saw promoted, valued and emulated. But when I scan forward, I can’t say what the leadership of the future will look like. I can however, have a good stab at what the leaderships of the future might be like (and that’s plural for the avoidance of doubt).

I am talking about the need for public service leaders to become chameleon–like; to adapt and adjust more, to blur the public-private edges and to adopt a range of leadership techniques that can be seamlessly combined and implemented. In short, to become cultural shape-shifters inspired to challenge the orthodoxy and create new dimensions in public value.
'Chameleon' by Chris Willis

Style of leadership

At the interview for the role I do now, the presentation question asked me to define and exemplify my style of leadership in order to demonstrate why I was right for the job. I tried hard to answer the question faithfully but failed because I couldn’t articulate what ‘my style’ is. So, at the risk of sounding like a flibbertigibbet, I stayed true and talked about the range of leadership styles and techniques I employ: they differ according to issue, context and required outcome.

I recall talking about the transposable need for engaged, entrepreneurial, visionary and pace-setting leadership. Almost eighteen months on this inter-changeability is even more important.

Yes, we need different leadership approaches because of austerity and because I genuinely believe hard times foster innovation and enterprising spirit – but whatever the economic climate in the future, customer demands and expectations will increase and change at a faster rate than ever before and this means new types and varieties of leadership behaviours . The new response must therefore be steeped in what my CEO calls a ‘willingness to enter into a permanent state of transition’.


I used to worry that I wouldn’t get the job of my dreams because I didn’t have the years of experience that many person specs told me I needed. But I soon saw that for some of the leaders I most respected, time-served was much less important than the ability to bring people together to deliver a shared goal.

The right kind of leadership and ‘failing forward’

In previous jobs, I told myself I couldn’t be fulfilled unless I was a ‘transformational’ leader, but I now know that some of the time, transactional leadership is right. Just as some occasions call for coercive or adaptive or consensual leadership. I have relaxed much more into my role now because I rely on observations and instinct to tell me what works and how I can improve what doesn’t.

I am passionate about the work we are doing for NESTA’s Creative Councils programme which sits under the banner of ‘public service re-boot’ because our goal is to create a networked culture in which people feel valued for the skills and expertise they bring to their roles, and not where they sit in the chain of command. I love the ‘fail fast, fail forward’ mantra because the past can’t imprison and failing just enriches resilience, clarifies sense of purpose and what matters and the future ability to navigate complexity.

The Future

So what are the new pillars of the future leaderships? Co-creation and developing more meaningful partnerships with communities is the right thing to do because priorities to ‘develop the new economy’, ‘reimagine public service culture’ and ‘reconfigure health’ are not isolated end goals.

The very act of engaging in these essential activities is a real opportunity to foster innovation and creativity, increase prosperity and enhance quality of life.

The opportunities we are creating in Monmouthshire through CMC² our new community interest company; more penetrative partnerships with our Registered Social Landlord providers and unique ventures with private sector organisations around enterprise development, are all re-acquainting us with the essence and potential of public service.

And the real beauty is that these are not traditional public-service centric ways of working. The trick is to create as many connections as possible between the different players in public value – irrespective of sector or background. Whole systems thinking and ‘total place’ must transcend sectors, services and organisations if it is to genuinely create opportunities for alignment, efficiency and leverage.


It is in the technology sector where I see some of the most inspiring and radical changes occurring and I don’t just mean in terms of information practices although indisputably, by themselves, these are mind-blowingly impressive, but also leaderships terms.

The arrival of cloud computing, virtualisation and open source are not just changing job descriptions – they are creating the opportunities for new public-private hybrid models; infrastructure convergence and shared services.

In education, technology-rich learning is teaching children and young people how to think – and not what to think.

The new more adaptive infrastructure enables a new type of collaboration through peer production models that reveal our ideas and thinking and make them more open to the influence of others.

The lexicon of public service is littered with phrases such as ‘community leadership’, ‘democratic engagement’ and ‘place-shaping’. Of course these are not intrinsically bad terms – but terms we must nonetheless re-interpret and redefine for the 21st century.

As public service leaders sailing unchartered seas, we don’t need to be leading from the front to be at the forefront. In the same way, we do not to be the sole pioneers of new ideas and delivery models that will yield public good – we just need to ensure that we are open and receptive to new solutions and ways of doing things and we become practised at opportunity spotting.

I reckon chameleons get a bad press (it’s the karma thing) – but they have exceptional powers of sight and are uniquely adaptive to the most challenging of environments. Sounds like a lesson in leaderships to me.”

More posts like this:

Entrepreneurial leadership in the public space

Seven steps for councils to create a really thriving economy

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Posted by Helen in the communications department . 




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