https://civilservice.blog.gov.uk/2015/08/21/leadership-under-pressure/

Leadership under pressure

Graham Black
Graham Black, a Large Business tax specialist at HMRC

I’m Graham Black and I work in Large Business for HMRC. Essentially, we try to ensure that large corporates pay the right tax at the right time. I may be biased, but I find it fascinating work, bringing in the money that helps to fund the services we rely on.

Recently, I spoke at a Leadership event in East Kilbride. It was really useful to get different perspectives from people across the Civil Service – HMRC, possibly because of the tax specialism that is core to much of our work, perhaps has less interchange of staff with other parts of the Civil Service than some departments.

I was impressed by the enthusiasm of the participants, but also by their realism and their genuine desire to make a difference.

Leadership lessons learned

I was asked to describe some of the leadership lessons I had learned over the years – a big ask, as I seem to learn new things every week. But one of the early lessons I picked up was how leaders’ actions influence those around them. I have seen many examples of this, but two in particular came to mind. In both, small teams came under real pressure to make changes at short notice in key areas.

In one, the leader was calm (at least outwardly!), brought the team together and exuded confidence. He concentrated on looking forward and ensuring everyone pulled together to find answers. Consequently, the team did just that, organising themselves, working together and actually getting a buzz from what was a rather scary episode.

In the other instance, the manager was visibly shaken and a bit panicky. This transmitted itself very quickly to his team, with people looking to ascribe blame, covering their backs, and failing to give a coherent and effective response.

Both leaders, in normal times, would have loudly supported the Civil Service Leadership Statement, but only one followed that through in his actions. And that is the bottom line. If the statement is to mean anything, we have to act on it, through good times and bad. I would probably say we still have a way to go to demonstrate to staff across the Civil Service that what we say is what we do – and it is only by having all our leaders acting in this way that we can expect to have the positive impact we are seeking.

Diversity advances

However, if senior leaders are behaving contrary to the statement, and perhaps not realising the effect this is having, it can be difficult for people to raise this with them.

For myself, I have learned that the key thing is to be clear in your mind what you are trying to say, how you want to say it, and try to put your views forward in a constructive, positive way. For example: "Graham, I thought your talk was thought-provoking and interesting [a white lie never did any harm], but when you said we were making great advances on diversity it felt as if you did not always recognise the issues that people with disabilities still face." This would make me pause and consider what I had said and how I had said it, whereas a blunt "You clearly don't care about people with disabilities" might make me react defensively.

I would thoroughly recommend the cross-Civil Service event, which dealt with leadership and diversity issues. We have great people, and in any number of areas we are in fact doing the right things and doing them well. While my sense is that we are actually ahead of many other organisations, there is still plenty of room for improvement. So, we should celebrate our progress, while keeping up our efforts to be even better.

Oh, by the way, a bonus from the East Kilbride event was bumping into someone I had not seen since I was at school in the area. The years just fall away when that happens (if only temporarily), and I could almost hear the sound of the Bay City Rollers in the distance…

3 comments

  1. Olaf Dudley

    Nice piece Graham, especially the way you contrast the leaders' (and the teams') reaction to pressure. Without that sort of illustration, a lot of this leadership discussion remains rather dry and theorectical.

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  2. Caroline Williams

    Very well written Graham - a very interesting piece

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  3. Melanie

    Agree interesting piece. I too can recall a scenario around management reactions to 'stressful' situations as you have. And it had the same results - can't be a coincidence.

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