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National leadership: A perilous voyage?


A new report reveals that moving up the ranks to become a national leader presents a fresh range of challenges, not least the fear of making a mistake.

Navigating the new waters of national leadership is a study by international leadership development organisation Common Purpose into the challenges of making the leap to a national leadership role.

One of the most striking findings of the report, which inlcuded observations and advice from Tim Melville Ross, chairman, DTZ, Zenna Atkins, chair, Ofsted, Dr John Inge, Bishop of Worcester and Jon Williams, world news editor, BBC, was that many senior leaders fear that they aren’t up to the task at some point.

The report revealed that the central challenge of moving to a national leadership role is that, after successfully rising up the ranks of an organisation, industry or regional power structure, a leader finds that there is a whole new mountain to climb.

These fresh hurdles can include, as John Inge experienced: “Letting go of the desire to be involved in everything and trying to fix things yourself as you might locally. You have to delegate to and trust others.”

According to James Ramsbotham, chief executive, North East Chamber of Commerce: “The more senior the level at which you operate, the more complex the personal agendas and the more they get in the way. If you do not try to unravel them you will not be able to combat them and you will not achieve your objectives. You will be obstructed for apparently illogical reasons.”

The consequences of making a mistake at a national leadership level can have serious repercussions for the career of the leader, their organisation, industry or even the country. This is likely to be on the mind of any leader making the transition to national leadership and the implications of a mistake one factor that is guiding their decisions and actions. The contributors to the report made the following recommendations for avoiding mistakes:

  • “Be very clear about what it is your organisation, department, is trying to achieve. Surround yourself with the best people you can find to help you achieve that, and then communicate ceaselessly with everybody, both internally and externally, who might be able to influence the outcome.” Tim Melville Ross.

  • “In terms of the pitfalls, it seems to me the real danger is thinking you've made it simply by getting there, that because you've got to a leadership role, you must have all the answers. Actually, the truth is quite the reverse. That's the time to be the human sponge, mop up the insights and intelligence. Sure, have the vision, but use the experiences of others to map the route rather than expecting everyone to find their own way. The platform becomes a virtuous circle, networks open up, you're exposed to fresh ideas from other sectors. Each reinforces the last, that's the real privilege of the national leadership role.” Jon Williams.

  • “Do some work on your inner life. Only those who are relatively ‘sorted’ in themselves will make good leaders and avoid causing pain to themselves and others.” John Inge.

  • “Develop your listening skills. You are unlikely to be as wise as the sum of all those around you. Be wary about the suggestion that some people are more important than others. Whether they be electors, customers or audiences, you put yourself in peril if you underestimate your public. Reflection is the most important ‘tool’ in the leadership kit!” Sir Michael Lyons, professor of public policy, University of Birmingham and chair, BBC Trust.

Marie Mohan, Director of 20: 20, Common Purpose’s programme for those making the transition to a national leadership role says: “From the experiences of the leaders who took part in this report, it is clear that there are common barriers to overcome; blind spots and insecurities of moving into a different ‘circle’ and not knowing the ‘right language’ or ‘customs’ needed to get things done. The report provides an insight into the complexities of attaining a national remit and is a valuable guide to anyone who is about to embark on a national leadership role”

You can find out more about the 20:20 leadership programme here.


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