The cabinet secretary says his leadership style is founded on three core elements. Beckie Smith reports on Civil Service World’s 2019 leadership lecture

Photo:Tom Hampson

Sometimes, true leadership is recognising that people in your team have skills that you don’t. At other times, it’s understanding that you need to step up and make a decision that others cannot.

These were some of the lessons cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill imparted at CSW’s second annual Leadership Lecture – a series in which top public servants reflect on what they have learned.

At the event, sponsored by global management consultancy Bain and Company, Sedwill shared the three principles he strives to live up to as a leader. He was joined by Bain chairman Orit Gadiesh, who spoke about her experience of guiding the business through a time of crisis, and the lessons she had learned from failures of leadership in the banking sector.

Get the big ideas right…

A common mistake leaders make is thinking they must come up with all the “big ideas” that drive forward an organisation’s agenda, when this is “very rarely” the case, Sedwill said.

In reality, he said, “the big ideas are not the things that come to you in the bath with a ‘Eureka!’ moment.”

“The really big ideas usually emerge from the organisation itself, and the skill of being a great leader is spotting them, crystallising them, bringing them together – and it may take some time, but you should be open with your organisations [about that],” he said.

“But every now and again you’ll hear someone say something in a meeting, or they’ll be presenting something and… your instincts tell you there’s something there that can really move the dialogue, either of the organisation itself or of the policy agenda.”

As well as refining that idea, a leader’s job is to rally the organisation behind it: “communicate it absolutely relentlessly and ensure it fits with the rest of your agenda,” Sedwill said.

Get the team right…

Much is made in recruitment circles of the need to pick the best person for the job, but Sedwill stressed that new hires are not made in isolation.

“Don’t just pick great people; pick a great team,” he told lecture attendees. “Don’t worry necessarily about just picking the best person for the job on a straight hierarchy; think about the best person for your team, of the people that you believe will do a really good job for you.”

Good leaders, Sedwill said, will consider how someone’s skills, personality and perspective will interact with those of the rest of the team.

“Of course people have to get jobs on a meritocratic basis, but you will often find at the end of an appointment process for your key people… that if it comes down to the last two people, you can’t really say ‘this one’s better than this one’.”

At that point, a leader should consider who is “a better fit right now”. That might mean when an agency’s leader moves on, for example, their replacement should have a different leadership style because the agency has evolved.

Leaders should pick people with complementary skills, Sedwill said. Asked about his approach to delegation, he said the key was recognising that “often the people who are working for you are better at what they’re doing than you would be”.

 …But don’t be afraid to lead

Sedwill’s third piece of advice addressed the “personality of leadership”.

“Stay calm” is not often an instruction given to leaders, but the Douglas Adams-esque tip – reminiscent of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s “don’t panic” – is invaluable, Sedwill said. We can teach ourselves to be calm, he observed, adding that he had practised de-escalating discussions when they became heated to ensure everyone was thinking clearly.

“None of us is a robot – we don’t do this all the time,” Sedwill said. He added that practising in small situations had equipped him to handle bigger crises – particularly when an issue could not be resolved by consensus.

“You can be the most collegiate, coaching, nurturing, arms-around-everybody leader you would like to be – and most of us would like to be that kind of leader most of the time… but at times you have to be the point of certainty, the person who is willing to make the call and be the voice of calm in the room,” he said.

He related how, as Britain’s acting high commissioner in Pakistan, he had to decide whether to evacuate the post over safety concerns after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The post had already been evacuated twice – after a terrorist attack and because of the threat of nuclear conflict – and Sedwill said he believed a third evacuation could mean losing the UK’s presence in a strategic location for several years.

Having consulted his senior leadership team, Sedwill was in a minority of one in thinking the post should stay open. Sure of his convictions, he sent a message to London saying that the consensus of his team was to evacuate, but that he advised staying put.

“That was the hardest leadership decision I’d ever taken because people’s lives were on the line,” Sedwill said. He believes it was the right one.

“If you are the boss and you really, really believe something and you’ve exposed the argument, and given everybody the opportunity to work through it, and you’ve thought hard about it, actually you have that responsibility to back your own judgment.”

“You can be the most coaching, nurturing, arms-around-everybody leader, but at times you have to be the person who is willing to make the call” Sir Mark Sedwill

Remember your moral compass

Orit Gadiesh offered an additional perspective. She talked about the importance of culture to an organisation, reflecting on her own experiences, lessons from working with leaders around the world, and examples from the 2008 financial crisis and the 2012 Libor scandal.

“Most people who work in banks are decent and honourable… [so] the question is just how did some otherwise decent people get sucked into an ethical swamp that hindsight reveals as completely indefensible?” she asked.

“The answer, I suggest, is a widespread failure of corporate culture.”

Gadiesh said that whether senior leaders knew exactly what was going on in their investment divisions was “beside the point” as they had created organisations where questionable behaviour was “conducted and rewarded”.

Leaders create and sustain an organisation’s culture, Gadiesh said. “Great leaders do it consciously, because they understand the culture that they nurture will be their greatest legacy or their worst.”

She said Bain had asked itself some tough questions around 25 years ago after narrowly avoiding bankruptcy.

“Our character and culture saved us,” she said. Despite its financial difficulties, the company stuck to its principles, known as “true North”, which include only accepting work where it can deliver meaningful results.

“True North is the one thing that remains constant, regardless of the circumstances… it’s about who and what you are,” she said.

These principles may be “hard to live by”, Gadiesh said. For Bain, that meant resigning from a profitable account that was “inconsistent” with its values, despite facing a crisis.

For civil servants, Sedwill said, those unfailing guiding principles are distilled in the Civil Service Code. However, he urged people not to “get too hung up on the words” – the core values remain constant whether or not they are referred to explicitly as “honesty, impartiality, integrity and objectivity”.

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