The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest threat the UK has faced in decades. The virus has caused tens of thousands of deaths, affected the lives of everyone in the country and has had a devastating effect on businesses. This situation requires government to work together across departments and sectors to tackle this. More than ever, it requires strong leadership and leaders to operate at their best.
Earlier this year Clare Moriarty, former Permanent Secretary, launched Leadership in Action, setting out eight attributes of great leadership. I’ve been struck by how much Clare, and Shan Morgan, Permanent Secretary, Welsh Government embody the spirit of what I want to focus on – demonstrating the attributes of both collaborating, and encouraging cross system working, along with exercising judgement and making good evidence- based decisions. These are Leadership in Action attributes that resonate strongly with me, and never more so than during the last 9 months as we tackle COVID.
Our focus at Public Health England has always been about using the evidence to inform all we do, and entails working with and through others. Whether seeking to achieve a step change in smoking reduction, or providing advice and support to deal with an incident such as the aftermath of Novichok or the Grenfell Tower fire, or working at the heart of an infectious disease outbreak we have always sought to balance the evidence with the context to make the best judgements we could at that moment. In all of these situations we have needed partners across the system to help deliver the best possible outcomes for citizens.
COVID has amplified this need. And it’s caused me to reflect on what the ask of leaders is in an ever changing and highly uncertain context. Take making good judgements using evidence. This feels very straightforward. You find out the facts, develop options for action, and proceed with the approach you consider the best. However, when the evidence continues to evolve and change, when the science can help you understand the now but not the future because we’ve not encountered a disease quite like this before, when a range of countries are looking at the same evidence and reaching different conclusions or trying different approaches – what then?
There’s a widely held perception that the sciences and arts are diametrically different. Some suggest that science is concerned with objective facts whereas art is concerned with subjective experience.
What I observe is a reality that is far more complex and nuanced. Feelings are evidence too, not least because they affect how we behave individually and collectively.
What has been reinforced for me is that as leaders we need to blend what we know with what we intuit and what we feel in order to make the best possible decisions.
When I look at what has made a difference in tackling COVID it is people in places coming together to fight the threat. People working across organisational boundaries, united in a common goal, sharing resources, to do what is needed most for their community. So working across system matters.
Those of you who follow system thinkers will know that curiosity is a key enabling trait when working at a system level. I’m curious to know how we retain this organisationally agnostic approach when we’re not in the midst of a crisis? How do we respect our governance and our structures and ensure they liberate rather than constrain us? How do we use this passion and energy to drive reform?
For those of you who are interested in exploring this more deeply I encourage you to look at the reform work of Alex Chisholm, Head of Civil Service is leading shapingourfuture.civilservice.gov.uk. and consider how you can support this.
My commitment is to work with the reform team to help develop a hack that supports reform champions throughout the service to make a difference. What will you do?