News and Comment

The importance of embracing dissent

Wednesday 12 September 2012

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Last Wednesday I took part in The Guardian local government network’s live discussion on the subject of what makes a good council chief executive. I joined a panel of past and present council chief execs, think-tank policy formers and representatives from the Local Government Association to debate this issue and field questions.

Reflecting on what was a really constructive and fruitful exercise I noticed that more often than not the panel seemed to be in agreement over the skills successful leaders require. This is hardly surprising I guess.  Over many long and varied careers in local government, perceptive observers will have noticed that the best chief execs – though they can be very different – invariably share a core set of skills; such as the ability to build strong relationships with colleagues, make good calls on things as they see them and learn from service users and front line feedback.

However, while a consensus of opinion existed among the panel, I couldn’t help thinking that for the aspiring chief execs of the future, something else will be needed.

For a chief executive, running a council of any size has always required the ability to mediate between disparate groups – both internally and externally – to establish a common purpose. Councils are now doing more to help people to do more for themselves – to unlock local capacity and to re-commission services to enhance their impact.  In this world, it is the people who ask the most difficult questions, who appear disruptive and whose perspective seems out of step with the majority that bring to light the uncomfortable truths that need to be addressed. Peripheral criticisms can often be the bellwether to changes needed.

So seeking out dissenters, even if you don’t always agree with them, is an important habit for any leader to get into.  Plain sailing may be pleasant, but it’s always better to know when the winds are starting to blow in another direction.