Exploring future leadership discovery workshop: what did we learn?

The third blog post on the subject of exploring future leadership.

Nour Sidawi
Mar 8, 2019 · 10 min read
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Dr. Clare Price-Dowd’s talk on “Leadership…for what?”

You’ll find previous posts we’ve written on this theme:

We’re writing this post to share:

  • Our findings from the research we undertook on leadership development schemes (knowledge, skills, behaviours, attitudes). You can find the outputs of the research here.
  • The outputs from the discovery workshop we ran on 1 March;
  • What we are going to do with the outputs.

You can share your views here, via @OneTeamGov on Twitter or by emailing contact@oneteamgov.uk.

We are being open about what we discussed during the day and what we created. Our thinking on leadership is open and community-owned.

Workshops like this are not a ‘nice to have’ — they are integral to defining a future model of leadership fit for the organisations we work in and care about.

Who was in the room?

The event was run by Audree Fletcher (Freelance Service Designer), Nour Sidawi (Commercial Manager, MOD), James Arthur Cattell (Delivery Manager, DEFRA) and Jason Brewster (Programme Lead, NHS Leadership Academy).

Dr Claire Price-Dowd gave a talk entitled “Leadership, for what?”

The event was well attended with 40 attendees from both the public and private sector.

Outputs from the day

Our discovery question for the day was:

“Leadership for what?”

We wanted to identify and develop a new perspective on leadership, and connect with different people thinking about alternative ways to lead. We sought to understand what a successful outcome would be for leadership and development schemes.

To do this, we planned a number of activities to gather responses from our attendees. The findings are detailed below.

1. Characteristics of future leadership

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“Characteristics of a good leader”

Facilitation technique: Participants are to add sticky notes onto a silhouette of Barack Obama with sign above saying, “”characteristics of a good leader”.

Findings: We identified nine characteristics of future leadership from the research and discovery workshop. These were expressed equally across all the groups, and contained these clear views:

  • Challenges, and is accepting and unafraid of challenge
  • Leads by example, from the bottom up and creates a culture that trusts people to do that
  • Enabler, connecting people and teams, and helping make good things happen
  • Active listener
  • Empathetic
  • Curious
  • Inclusive
  • Honest
  • Moral courage

Other characteristics that were identified across the various groups:

  • Helps people improve things and themselves, teaching them to be more aware of the impact of the things they do and say
  • Human — self-aware, and emotionally intelligent
  • Accountable
  • Trusting, allows others to do the job, try things and fail fast
  • Creates a safe environment
  • Empowering
  • Approachable, and willing to put themselves out there
  • Compassionate
  • Integrity
  • Engaging

This matches the initial research we conducted in November 2018 on characteristics of future leadership in the Civil Service, which you can find here.

2. What does good leadership look like? How does a good leader make you feel?

Facilitation technique: Empathy mapping for being on the receiving end of good leadership. This was followed with a discussion of the key themes that emerge from good leadership.

Findings: Participants identified that good distributed leadership:

  • allows people to help improve things and themselves by allowing them to ‘fail fast’.
  • is led from the bottom up with a culture that trusts people to do that.
  • teaches people to be aware of the impact of the things they do and say.
  • appoints the right people for the right time.
  • has mutual empathy; a recognition that people are human beings that are flawed.

We need to think about what it’s like to be on the receiving end of positive and not-so-positive experiences of leadership, “Are we defining a good person or good leadership? And can any good person be a good leader?”

3. What does distributed leadership look like?

Facilitation technique: User Experience Fishbowl, followed by smaller group review of discussions and process.

Findings: Participants talked about distributed leadership. These are the key outputs from that discussion:

  • Leadership at all levels: led and being led at all times, as well as being shared.
  • Giving space for people within their roles to act as leaders.
  • The ability to empower yourself to act as a leader using judgement, experience and management of risks.
  • Creating the atmosphere for people to create something different and input into a stream.
  • A snowball effect for the wider good. The first person has to take the step; this requires trust.
  • The space to use powers and freedoms, and make systems work. It is helping make structures under different circumstances work. There are freedoms and power at certain levels to do this.
  • The flow of information to enable leadership to function properly.
  • Clarity of boundaries, freedoms and intentions.
  • Vision for what the room needed to be like and executed as you see fit. Held to account on quality.
  • Consideration of personal role and what it means to operate in a system of distributed leadership and enable leadership to be shared.

4. What do you want to get out of this? What does it mean for you?

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Lean Coffee topics proposed for discussion

Facilitation technique: Lean Coffee was used for a focused discussion of the top topics suggested and voted on by attendees.

Topic 1: Participants talked about leadership schemes in general:

  • People don’t need to be on a leadership scheme to be successful. It is only one way of being recognised.
  • Schemes can be a catalyst, giving people the space need to develop and get to where they want to go.
  • Engaging across different departments is a positive thing.
  • Separate succession planning, pipeline development and talent management, which is exclusive from leadership development, and is inclusive. There are overlaps, it is confusing to have them part of the same objectives and outcomes.

Topic 2: Participants talked about how we assess potential for talent:

  • It was questioned whether interviews were the best way to test for leadership given diversity of the nation. How would you do it in a way that was not in your own image?
  • Diverse thinking and abilities bring different things to be table to be able to run a system that works for the entire country. There is a duty of care to put people on development programmes based on diversity that are not connected to talent pipelines.
  • People work in teams. There should be a focus should investment in people who work in teams, display non-heroic leadership and a reflective approach.
  • Leaders can’t exist without other people. A more organic approach to leadership development that enables people to deliver, and acknowledges the incomplete leader.
  • Good leaders can straddle the two powers, new and old.
  • There’s a lag time between change which can cause tension.

Topic 3: Participants talked about how the Civil Service can learn to value external experience:

  • There is the perception in the Civil Service that external experience is not valued within individual departments.
  • There is the recognition that we need to change and use success profiles help to help this.
  • The Civil Service has become much more embracing of external experiences and diversity of thought. How do we do socialisation better? How do we ensure people encounter the value and vision?
  • Being the outlier is a good thing; being the person who takes the power to ask these things is a good thing to do.

Topic 4: Participants talked about how the Civil Service can use data, digital and networks better to improve applicant experiences:

  • Gather insight about what people need.
  • Feedback goes into a ‘black hole’; no belief that feedback gets used.
  • Some people don’t have access to certain learning and materials because of systems — e.g. NHS colleagues who can’t access Civil Service Learning. This means that people start from different places. Why can’t these materials be shared more widely to benefit all?
  • Have the awareness that different departments prepare their people differently — e.g. through coaching. There needs to be consistency and fairness in the whole process.
  • Tailor the interview to the conversation you’re having with the person; the interview should be about values, potential, aspirations and the person themselves. Should we train our interviewers better to achieve this?
  • Think of these programmes as services and get user feedback to improve iteratively. We should be more user centred and agile.

Topic 5: Participants talked about how we focus on those with most to gain, not those already on the path:

  • We should be smarter about triaging those not already on Permanent Secretary pathway, to which schemes can add the most value. People are talent and need nurturing to be in the ‘top’ groups.
  • You shouldn’t need to have an individual that benefits from a leadership development scheme experience at every single level. Are there ‘serial course/development scheme goers’? If they’re not there for knowledge, but for the ‘badge’, is there something contextual?
  • The aspiration is that the UK Civil Service Leadership Academy is for everybody, not just Senior Civil Service.

We were left with something to think about, “How do we identify people that have been missed? Do these people feel that these opportunities are not for them?”

What can we/all of us do to help to take this forward? What next?

Tweet from Emma on Leadership (Department for Education)

Leadership is deeply personal. It’s the recognition that people are human. There are different types of leadership for everyone; the nuances and spectrum of it depend on the circumstances and environment. Leadership changes depending on context, change and people.

When done well, leadership helps other people make the good stuff happen. To achieve this, we need to develop compassionate, inclusive cultures wherever we work to ensure people feel valued.

We need the ability to recognise what’s needed, when and where it’s being done well, and how to scale it.

Compassion and empathy are the key to getting leadership right. If we want things to be different, we have to get people to do things differently and think differently now; that means creating cultures that fit into this.

We will need to look inwards for leadership to make real change. We must dare to make this happen.

We identified pain points, challenges, needs, opportunities, and strengths of leadership development and existing leadership development schemes.

We have shared our learnings with the wonderful people at the Cabinet Office’s UK Civil Service Leadership Academy so they can help us do something with it and be part of our journey. They are listening, open to feedback and have provided avenues for us to input directly.

Thank you to all who have fed into this work!

Further reading

Slides for the One Team Gov Discovery Workshop on Leadership:

If you’re interested in writing your own blogs or weeknotes as part of your leadership journey, Sam Villis and Jenny Vass have provided a useful place to start:


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

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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