“We do not have to be a fully fledged systemic thinkers… to work systemically.”

Part of a series of posts written by the Directors’ Network, supported by One Team Gov and the National Leadership Centre

Nour Sidawi
Nov 16 · 4 min read
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One Team Gov lanyards at #OneTeamGovGlobal in London (2018)

We’re writing this blog post to continue our series on growing the community of Directors committed to collective leadership, co-creation and building cultures that support collaboration.

Leading public services has always been tough — we have to tackle complex societal issues which no single organisation can face alone, especially during these times. As public sector leaders, Directors are at the forefront of this, wrestling with the systemic and interrelated nature of many issues.

We had our fourteenth breakfast call in early November, where we were joined by Alex Thomas from the Institute for Gov, who responded to the question:

How might we lead in the context of government in the 21st century?

Below is a summary of our discussions.

Are the current challenges we face as profound, or different to, past challenges? What are the risks and opportunities?

We have been in crises before. However, being collaborative is hard when you’re sitting in front of screens all day, every day. Our days feel the same — and we haven’t yet figured out to how collaborate in a world of virtual work. COVID-19 response initially saw us overcome bureaucratic barriers, taking more measured risks. Now, there is an increasing sense of people returning to a normative risk-aversion.

Our deeply held ideas are colliding with new ways of leading that are more distributed, relational, and interdependent. But our systems and processes are not set up for this. The challenge of balancing urgency and importance is felt most acutely right now. Without careful, intentional action, our linear, siloed approaches will keep exerting themselves.

We do not have to be a fully fledged systemic thinkers… to work systemically.

We need a different approach and thinking across the Civil Service. We exist as part of many complex systems— interconnectedness is the order of the day. As leaders and public sector professionals we sit alongside other actors, rather than above or at the centre and we need to change the relationships with have with people, communities, markets and more in order to take advantage of diversity of experience in order to solve the biggest problems.

Perhaps we need to take a less transactional, more relational approach, and build genuine connection and relationships?

How are you and the teams you lead feeling, from a personal and leadership perspective? How can we lead ourselves and our teams?

The mix of COVID-19 and business as usual has been a difficult juggling act — a balancing of urgency and importance. The things that directly affect us are sometimes out of our control. It can sometimes feel impossible to join up across the existing siloes, which is frustrating. We see areas getting narrower, more cautious, and not working across government. Despite this, there seems to be an increased appetite to be more adaptive within our teams. We must build across boundaries, draw on local expertise, and work with outside partners when moving forward.

COVID-19 has been catalyst for an enhanced focus on wellbeing, both ourselves and people we work for, not just as another ‘task’ on the to-do list. What we are asking people to do is really, really difficult. We are seeing a 24/7 culture, where people are on call all the time as a result of prolonged working from home, become increasingly normalised. Things are tougher in the world of virtual work; we are in danger in being on the hamster wheel and not getting off it. It is a cause for concern.

The teams we lead are feeling burned out. They haven’t had enough time off, and may have worked long hours over long periods, sustaining the response effort alongside their public sector colleagues.

The levels of underlying anxiety are much higher now. People have worries they carry with them, not just their work, but also their families, communities, sickness, and increasingly visible inequality — amongst many other things.

This, coupled with high levels of vacancies and redeployment of staff, has resulted in people having high workloads. What can we do about this? We must role model taking a more intentional approach to leadership — starting with taking time off ourselves, checking-in with our teams, being open about how we feel, and making space for informal discussions.

This space gives us the time and space to think about the things that are on our minds. We must be open, brave, and bold in how we approach leading ourselves and our teams. However, moving to a different approach requires curiosity, courage, and passion — and we all can play a role in this shift.

The next call will be held on Thursday 19 November from 8.30–9.30am. If you are a director and would like to join the network, e-mail: csdirectors@cabinetoffice.gov.uk.

We look forward to seeing you there!

OneTeamGov

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 🌍

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 🌍

OneTeamGov

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

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