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Future Leaders: leadership theory into practice

Earlier this month I travelled up to Leeds to take part in the academic section of the LGcommunications Future Leaders Programme. Paul Willis, Professor of Corporate Communication from Huddersfield Business School, led the two-day session hosted at Leeds City Council.

It’s easy to dismiss leadership theory in public sector communications. In many town halls across the country the ivory towers of academia can seem irrelevant and distant. However, Professor Willis’ strength is that he is able to articulate the complex problems and issues facing the sector, using theory to break down the issues and provide practical solutions.

I particularly resonated with the idea of ‘wicked-problems’; as I’m constantly faced with issues that are complex, ambiguous and unique. Furthermore, when you’re dealing with a huge range of stakeholders with varying demands, there are no right and wrong answers, just varying shades of grey.

Throughout the two days, we all shared our own horror stories of bad leadership and the occasional ‘corporate psychopath’. Professor Willis pointed out that many people get promoted on their competence of their current role, but that does not qualify them for the challenges of leadership. However, what’s unique to public sector communications is our values; most of us care deeply about our local communities and want to make a difference. If we can channel these values, it can help us become better, more empathetic and resilient leaders.

It was fascinating to see how leadership theory has changed dramatically in the last 150 years, from the early ideas of the ‘Great Man’ leading his men heroically into battle, to the modern view of ‘Servant Leadership’ and meeting the needs of the team as hierarchies continue to flatten. However, as Professor Willis kept reminding us, communicators should make natural leaders as they already have many of the skills required to succeed.

A reoccurring theme was the need to slow-down and carve out time for reflection. This can be hard to justify and manage when you have a huge workload and numerous deadlines. To manage those ‘wicked problems’ and become a successful leader, it’s essential to reflect on recent situations and understand why things worked or didn’t. A culture of ‘no blame’ and allowing room for mistakes is essential, along with a good dollop of humour – don’t cry over the typo in your last publication!

Leadership can be a lonely place and undoubtedly one of the biggest strengths of the programme is building a support network of colleagues from across local authorities in the UK, who you can share your problems and successes with. Our WhatsApp group has a wealth of advice and shared expertise – along with the occasional Thick of It meme and quote.

In the last six months, I am grateful to have met some outstanding communications professionals, working tirelessly in local government and the public sector, who have consistently challenged and pushed me to look at new ways of working harder and smarter.

As the formal section of the Future Leaders programme draws to a close, I am fully aware that nobody becomes a good leader overnight and I am thankful to LGcommunications for starting me on this journey. I am also grateful for the friendships I have made and look forward to many years of sharing experiences and hopefully, many more curries!

Livia Oldland, Communications Manager at the Greater Cambridge Partnership


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