Empathic, vulnerable, curious: inspirational leadership in the civil service

This blogpost is a collection of my thoughts and hopes for the future of leadership in the civil service. It comes from my experience and from talking to my peers, colleagues and others inside and outside government.

Leadership in the civil service

I’ve been a civil servant since 2009; during that time I’ve observed many types of leader. We all know when we’re working with a great leader: they inspire us, give us space, motivate us, and make us excited to come to work every day. It’s not about seniority or power; these people have this effect regardless of their grade or formal relationship to us. I’ve been thinking recently about what unites the leaders who have most inspired me during my time in government.

Happily, these people are not bound together by the traditional hallmarks of previous civil service leadership, which was largely male, white and middle-class. Civil servants are an increasingly diverse bunch [1]. I’ve enjoyed seeing more people leading big areas of work who are in the joyous bucket that might be called ‘alternative’. They’re tattooed; they wear jeans; they’re from diverse backgrounds. They conform just a bit less to corporate norms, and they’re the lifeblood of a civil service which represents a wider humanity.

Nor is it a traditional leadership style — negotiation skills, forcefulness, direction setting — which has set these people apart. It’s a set of less tangible qualities; I’m going to write about three of them.

1. Empathy

Empathy is a desire to understand how other humans feel and see the world from their perspective. Many of the people I’ve most admired in government do just that — they say things like ‘how does x feel about this’ and, more tellingly, ‘I know how x is going to feel about this’. They’re less concerned with their own views than with those of the people around them.

This may sound misty-eyed, but having empathy for those around you leads to better outcomes in the workplace (see the excellent Margaret Heffernan nail this idea here). In digital, where I work, a proxy of empathy is a focus on user need; digital teams understand how people want to interact with an online service and tailor that service to their needs. This brings delivery costs down because only things which meet well-stated and measurable needs get built, and services which do this well move more people online, shrinking the cost of running the state.

In policy making, empathy makes civil servants in Whitehall work to understand the impact of their advice on real people. It makes them talk to their operational colleagues more. It makes them want to draw direct connections between humans and their own jobs, which improves the quality of advice they give to ministers.

And at a team level, empathy means caring deeply about others’ worlds. It’s about fitting someone’s place in a team not just to their skills and knowledge, but to their desires and their fears. It’s one of the bits of alchemy that makes teams great — empathic teams are more productive and happier.

2. Vulnerability

Several years ago I was in a meeting with my then boss, at a tricky time in a large programme. She started the meeting with 30 seconds of silence followed by ‘Everyone, I’m messing this up, aren’t I?’ What followed was an hour of brutally honest, constructive problem solving after which we fundamentally changed our approach to delivering. In admitting her own vulnerability, she’d brought out the best in the team.

Leadership at its best doesn’t pretend to know everything. Great leaders know the simple beauty of saying ‘I don’t know’; that statements like these draw people to us. They are neither weak nor timid; rather, they have the courage to express the gaps in their own skills and knowledge. It is, to me, synonymous with showing humility and goes hand in hand with that other elusive quality, authenticity.

What if civil servants were rewarded more for showing vulnerability than for giving the pretence of unshakeable strength? How much better could we perform if we exposed our vulnerabilities and worked together to address them?

3. Curiosity

Curiosity is the gateway drug to learning. The best leaders constantly ask ‘why?’ and rarely settle for the easiest answer, instead taking the widest possible view to solve a problem. They’re porous, soaking in not only what they’re told, but the not-told — the inferred, the avoided, the intangible — and they have the skill to form this into a concrete view.

Curiosity at its finest, though, goes beyond this. The constant seeking of new ways of seeing the world is a hallmark of those who don’t crave a conservative place of work. They seek adventure, risk and, above all, to be always learning. The civil service values of integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality are vital to our culture, but they’re static — they don’t embrace evolution as an idea. We need to do this, for at least two reasons.

Firstly, because internet. The networked world races on, and we need leaders who can keep pace. We need to constantly evolve to be credible and to continue to give the best advice to ministers. We need leaders who code; who understand social media; who understand the way the society that we’re all serving as civil servants works nowadays.

Secondly, because money. As departments face budget freezes and cuts, we need innovative, evolutionary (and, when needed, revolutionary) leaders — people who can speed up policy making and implementation, who can automate activity to deal with a reduced workforce, who can lead teams who are working in different ways, in different places. We’re not going to get this done by continuing to lean on traditional learning methods; we need to create a culture of natural evolution [2].

Attracting inspirational leaders

The more civil servants we have who display these qualities, the better the outcome for government and for citizens. How do we get more of these skills in?

Firstly, we recruit with them in mind. What if we were to amend our values and competency framework to take account of these skills? These are the yardsticks against which we recruit — let’s make it clear that these qualities are welcome.

Secondly, make them part of our learning. I believe that empathy, vulnerability and curiosity can be trained, just like any other skill. There are people who are naturally good at this; we should use our best leaders as role models, and bake the skills into our learning offerings.

Thirdly, and crucially, we need more women. 54% of civil servants overall are women, but this reduces the more senior you are — only 39% of SCS are women. I will say, unapologetically, that many of the leaders, at all grades, by whom I’ve been inspired and who are bound together by these qualities have been women. These skills seem to sit more easily with what has often been associated with a ‘female’ style of leadership. This phrase is in inverted commas because these skills aren’t necessarily female; however, from my experience, women seem more naturally to lean on them in how they lead. More women role models in visible leadership roles will naturally give us a more empathic, vulnerable, curious workforce.

In summary

I love the civil service. I’m privileged to be working in government and I want to be part of making this leadership model a reality. Let’s be empathic, vulnerable and curious together. If you’re interested I’d love to hear from you. You can get me on Twitter @kitterati or leave comments below.


[1] See section B here: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/418050/TAP_Template_260315.pdf

[2] I could easily have added a fourth quality to this list — courage. The reason I haven’t is because Janet ‘Boldness’ Hughes has already done it, and her words can’t be improved upon. Read her blogpost if you haven’t yet. Also, because I love prime numbers.

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