Build your skills: Zahir Irani

To be a good leader, you need the confidence to drop the detail and be comfortable about your own identity

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A fundamental problem for any organisation is the blurring between management and leadership. There’s a woolly sense of difference – of there being some kind of progression from being a manager to becoming a leader due to seniority, from serving time and moving through the grades. But management and leadership are entirely separate roles, demanding a different outlook, set of behaviours and way of working. Not understanding the differences will hamper your career development and the running of the wider department.

To be a genuine leader you need to have the confidence to be able to drop the detail. Leadership is essentially a people business, where your core role is to direct, influence and guide so that people feel able and motivated to deliver the organisation’s vision. Your job is to invigorate, clarify and articulate that vision. In the case of the civil service, that means to continually reaffirm the purpose of a government department, its values and intentions; to make connections between day-to-day operations and the lives of the UK population. 

Leaders are more likely to follow their intuition in making decisions and forming strategy, are able to look more to gut feelings for the ‘right thing’ to do. Leaders are radical, disrupt the norms of how things have ‘always been done’ in a department. They inspire staff to choose to follow them, not necessarily because they are always popular, but because they provide a sense of a bigger picture and a direction that people want to buy into – a feeling of purpose and being part of something worthwhile.

Management is very much about the detail, ensuring that policy and process is followed. Working in the wake of the freewheeling leader, the manager is necessarily conservative: they create stability and think about incremental rather than radical change. They are a source of harmony and making sure things get done on time and within budget.

Becoming and working as a leader, then, is not about being an increasingly senior and effective manager. There’s a jump involved. The age-old question of whether everyone is capable of making the leap, whether leaders are born or made, is not a very helpful one. In practical terms, it’s far better to agree that there is a leader in everybody that can be developed. Some people find the development easy, some need more help, while others will struggle, just like people would with learning to play golf or the piano.

Critically, there isn’t a single leadership style that needs to be learnt and copied for the best results. You can choose your own brand of leadership that works with your individual personality. The best leaders also change their leadership styles (autocrat, democrat, paternalistic etc.) depending on circumstance, rather than subscribing to one particular style. But the basis of strength for leaders is in being individual. There are workshops available that will teach you how to be more charismatic by dressing in unconventional ways or taking up quirky new pursuits – but these are best avoided. Most important is to be clear and confident about your own identity, comfortable in your own skin and with your own characteristics, as well as being able to talk and listen to people in an engaging way.

When it comes to development, leadership is largely based on making the most of your management experiences. Your reputation in the service matters. It’s the stories that are told about you as a leader, as a battle-hardened achiever, that make the most difference – that show you’ve delivered through the whole process: in policy formulation, implementation and the impact of the work. Use and develop your networks of contacts and, at the same time, work on your social awareness. The best leaders are able to read a room – whether there are just a few or hundreds of people – and work it by sensing individual moods (and the changes in moods). Be more reflective about your responses to good and bad situations, what effect these have on others, and how you can best manage them and develop more emotional resilience.

Given the importance of individuality, there’s a risk to the civil service from its established systems of recruitment and promotion: having a leadership team of people from the same background, with the same values and the same kind of education. Consistency is no bad thing, of course - it leads to stability. At the same time, it precludes a degree of diversity and the benefits a new impetus of creativity, different perspectives and insights might bring. Usually we think of diversity in terms of gender, age, ethnicity – but it should also include people who think differently. In a world of increasing complexity and uncertainty – not least from working in a context of coalition politics and a forthcoming general election – there’s a growing need for leaders who aren’t too far rooted in traditional approaches: leaders who can bring new insights, have the courage to deliver change, and can oscillate between the roles of management and transformational leadership. 

Read the most recent articles written by Professor Zahir Irani - Leadership lessons for uncertain times

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