Empathetic, curious, vulnerable and collaborative

The fifth blog post about our ongoing discovery into future leadership in the public sector.

Nour Sidawi
Oct 18, 2019 · 8 min read
Clare Moriarty (DExEU Permanent Secretary) modelling vulnerability, self-reflection and openness by sharing personal reflections on thriving at work at times of great uncertainty and high personal risk. Clare is joined by Kate Josephs and David Hallam, founders of the Civil Service Directors’ Network.

We’re writing this blogpost to continue our series on exploring future leadership. You can find out more about this work here:

A lot of leadership learning lacks practicality or has a grade barrier to entry.

One Team Gov want to find space to talk about different leadership models — radical new ways to lead, underpinned by empathy, vulnerability, and collaboration.

Leading public services has always been tough — we have to tackle complex societal issues which no single organisation can face alone. Today’s landscape is even harder, with volatility and uncertainty the hallmarks of the last 5 years. This is a huge challenge to public service leaders, but also gives us an opportunity to find ways to work more effectively together.

We believe that everyone taking responsibility for how our sector thrives, is a better way to work in times of uncertainty than traditional hierarchies . For this reason, One Team Gov is a great supporter of collective leadership:

“Collective leadership means everyone taking responsibility for the success of the organisation as a whole — not just for their own jobs or area.” — The Kings Fund

But this type of leadership needs a fundamental mindset shift, as well as time and space to think how best to work collectively. To experiment with how best to do this, we’ve teamed up with the Civil Service Directors’ Network and Civil Service Group to develop collective leadership in the Civil Service.

We are building a community of Directors across government committed to collective leadership, co-creation and building cultures that support collaboration.

Through a series of themed events we’re looking at collective leadership in times of change and uncertainty. We have taken part in an ongoing conversation whilst we “learn through doing”, practising change in environments where ‘nothing is clear, and everything keeps changing’ (Collective Leadership, Workforce Scotland). The events provide a valuable safe space, combined with exchange of learning, peer support, useful tools and new perspectives to shed fresh light on today’s environment and the role of public sector leaders.

Jason Brewster and I get to spend time with senior leaders at these events, talking about the world in which they work, the challenges this poses for them, and what they need in order to thrive.

These senior leaders are resilient, optimistic, vulnerable, and open. Their stories are a complex web of identities, values, narratives, structures and performances. They bring their whole selves to the discussion. It is a small glimmer of the public sector we seek to build — giving, caring, and empathetic, with people who do all they can to make things better for others. We are shaping it together, one conversation at a time.

We use a wide range of formats for the events we’ve developed. We offer tools, practical insight and commentary. Our 2.5 hour sessions have three main elements:

The purpose: The desired outcome of a group session

The framework: Group work to reflect on

The questions: Reflection and a conversation on individual/collective learning

The events we have developed so far:

Slides can be found here (and below).

“How to lead through change and uncertainty” delivered on 14 May 2019

The purpose:

  • We explore the challenge of leading through change and uncertainty. We listen to a diverse range of voices, to learn from each other. We co-create insights to share, and build a stronger network.

The framework:

  • Lifelines — Where do we start from? Our own experience of leading through change and uncertainty

In small groups, we share share some of the key aspects of our career and leadership journey to date.

  • Fishbowl — Exploring lessons on leading through change and uncertainty

Using the Fishbowl, we engage as a whole group in a deeper, reflective conversation, seeing from a variety of perspectives. We observe, listen, and deliberate about our leadership experiences so far.

The questions:

Using 1–2–4-All, we work together to produce useful outputs focused on ‘leadership of self’ and ‘leadership of others’ during times of change and uncertainty.

  • What is the collective learning to share beyond this group?
  • What do you want to do?
  • What do you need to do?
  • What can you do to make it happen?
  • How will you work in the future?

These outputs have been shared openly here.

Slides can be found here. The updated slides for the next event to be delivered on 13 December 2019 can be found here (and below).

“How to be yourself and thrive in a high-risk, uncertain world” originally delivered on 17 July 2019

Leadership is about being authentic, about bringing our whole selves to work — but this can feel risky, especially when our roles as public servants can challenge our values. We also have lives outside work with their own stresses. How do we, as leaders, support and sustain our own and our teams’ wellbeing and resilience?

The purpose:

  • This event explores the challenge of being ourselves while managing our feelings, embracing change and thriving as a leader — and what it means for us and for our colleagues and teams.

The framework:

In small groups we will reflect on what is important to us; our values and experiences. A Johari Window activity will be used to help us to know and share ourselves, and connect with others. We will reflect on our journey to date by sharing our values and vulnerable experiences. Building trust and openness in small groups we will discuss the personal impact of being an open, honest and vulnerable leader.

  • Organisation Simulation — How to embrace our vulnerability and thrive

A workplace simulation in which participants will observe, reflect on and explore the realities of high-risk and uncertain workplaces. The simulation will create a fast-paced, ever-changing environment; participants will examine how the resulting behaviours might contrast with ideal behaviours. The experience closely mirrors day-to-day organisational life, enabling us to see the impact that our behaviour has on others. We will then focus on practical action by exploring how we purposefully change the way we work and value openness.

The questions:

We will reflect as a group on what we have discovered about ourselves, what we want to make more visible to others, the impact this will have on people around us, and what we want to change in the way we carry out our work.

  • What is the one thing you have learned today?
  • What questions do you still have?
  • What idea did you see today that you like best?
  • What did you see today that surprised you most?
  • What is the one thing that got buried that you think is important?

Slides can be found here (and below).

The purpose:

  • This event will explore how we work across boundaries and create the culture for success.

The framework:

In small groups, we will reflect on our understanding of where working across boundaries is happening, and the behaviours, emotions, actions, and thoughts that we need to create collaborative environments. Using this understanding, we will coach each other through a leadership discovery in mapping out a complex system to illuminate what is going on, and where to start. The complexities and hidden dynamics of organisational systems, the systems with which it interacts, will become clear as we explore our experiences.

1) Explanation of the rules — suspend judgment and acknowledge what is

2) Demo of process as whole group with one person’s issue

3) Explanation of steps on what happened in the group version and how to do this in small groups with paper and post-it notes

4) Get on doing it in small groups, mapping your system (leadership of self, leadership of others, the future) — time allocated for each person in the group to talk/coach

The questions:

We will reflect as a group on what we have discovered about working across boundaries, how we repeat collaboration that is working well, and how we coach others to do the same.

Using the Fishbowl, we will reflect on how we scale examples of collaboration that is working well by focusing on practical actions that the group can take, both individually and collectively. We will reflect on what we need to do to take the actions forward, how the group can support each other and where they can draw from the system.

  • What questions do you still have?
  • What did you see today that surprised you most?
  • What is the one thing that got buried that you think is important?

Using 1–2–4-All, we will focus on practical action by writing our personal commitments of micro-actions we can take to change the way we work.

  • What idea did you see today that you like best?
  • What micro-action will you take to make a change?

The past six months have been rich in learning. We have kept three primary questions in the forefront of our minds as we go on this journey:

  • What have we learned about people and delivery?
  • What have we learned about how we interpret organisations cultures’ so we know what the right thing is?
  • What have we learned about how we think about the right thing, and why?

As facilitators and conveners of these conversations we have taken in what’s been going on around us in the group and reflected on our own journey. We have learned every time we run a session, and look at how we can improve the next thing that we do.

Using this constructivist approach, we’ve shown how we can add value and move the conversations forward.

Within One Team Gov we believe that we are empowered to step into gaps or opportunities when we see the opportunity to change or improve them. Delivering these events gave us the opportunity for learning and also intervention to meet a need that we had uncovered in our other work.

Our work on exploring future leadership is a work in progress. We seek to strengthen our collective ability to lead and be led, and continue to show the power in the collective. We are keen to involve more people in shaping this work as it develops, and ensure it is openly available to all.

We’ll continue to offer support for the Civil Service Directors’ Network.

We also want to encourage people, especially senior leaders, to talk more openly and bring their most authentic selves to work. To help them, we plan to develop a compass for collective leadership to guide people in their leadership journey, using our global One Team Gov community to gather a diverse range of thoughts and opinions.


UK policymakers, service designers, digital professionals…

Nour Sidawi

Written by

Mastering the art of disruption in procurement, leadership, and change @MoJGoVUK. Reimagining the future of multifarious possibilities with @OneTeamGov 🌍


UK policymakers, service designers, digital professionals and others working out how we can make government more effective. #oneteamgov

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