We in Europe believe that our democratic system provides the foundation for a great set of principles and values that lead to good public governance. Public leadership is embedded within this, at least we think it is fair to say we ‘believe’ this. One might even say we have believed this for a long time since democracy traces back to the Greek concept of democracy over 2,500 years ago.
However, it is also fair to say that within this democratic system the evidence of frequent failures of public leadership abound, beginning with the Peloponnesian War and rattling on for a very long time thereafter. There is a sense today, however that public risks occur at a much faster pace and with wider scale impacts – disruptions caused by climate change and cybercrime, large scale pollution and poverty, fundamental lack of social cohesion, water shortage and migration issues being just a few well-discussed examples.
Given that chequered record, we might in fact say that leadership in the public sector is itself a critical source of risk.
Public leadership today must be viewed against the background of the diminishing structural trust of citizens in political and public life. The general feeling is that public leaders do not listen to citizens and are perceived as the ‘elite’, and do not act in line with their promises. In my view a contributing influence is the fact most of the public leaders disappear after the governing period of four-five years and make place for a new wave of fresh politicians with new promises – in other words there is little continuity and, partly as a consequence, little wisdom that can come from experience.
We at Primo (Public Risk Management Organisation) believe that there is a high need for leaders who can generate true safety and security – that is, individuals who actually invest in cohesion and cooperation and offer protection.
We recognise that this is a tall order and that there are different views on safety and security, but as we see it this is clearly an ‘essential issue’ in Europe – long-term thinking, consistency of action, and a conscious effort to repair the loss of confidence that presently exists.
From the perspective of Primo it is obvious that managing the public risks through leadership – we refer to this as risk leadership – needs to be rethought. The simple fact is that leadership itself (that is, unacceptable leadership) has become a risk factor.
In the round tables that Primo sponsors and the European think-tank From Global to Local have facilitated, we have encountered a wide range of stakeholders (from public and private sector) who have argued that society itself is adrift and that the democratic set of tools is running out of control.
More effective involvement of government in the life of citizens is needed more than ever. Evidence of these concerns have recently manifested themselves in the (unexpected) outcomes and results of elections and referenda of the last year. Consequently, we would argue that it is correct to say that politics is a source of risk itself and must be addressed as such.
It leads to the conclusion that the foundation of effective risk leadership needs to be studied, reconsidered, and reformed. Certainly, as noted previously, it is clear from the European UDITE (Union des Dirigeants Territoriaux Européens) and Primo network that many city managers express the general feeling that the unpredictability in political leadership (and the ensuing loss of confidence) has become a critical risk management problem itself (rather than, one might hope, a tool for addressing risk).
As just one obvious example of the ‘solution becoming the problem’, we would mention Al Gore’s widely cited observation that: “It is now apparent that the climate crisis is posing an unprecedented threat... to our assumptions about the ability of democracy and capitalism to recognise this threat for what it is and respond.”
And yet... and yet... our political system is a contributing factor to the continuation of this challenge.
From our discussion groups we have begun to diagnose this problem. And, though we believe we have a long way to go in fully understanding solutions, we would say here that our path forward involves a better understanding of the concept of stewardship.
Stewardship has numerous meanings and implications, but here we recall the example of the great Alexander von Humboldt, who through an integrative and holistic approach to scientific work, provides great insight into particular stewardship challenge of thinking broadly across boundaries to find solutions to complex challenge.
Some might simply call this ‘critical thinking’ but when placed inside the wider concept of stewardship implies that there are moral implications and a sense in which we are challenged to not be merely smart but wise. Could this insight be a starting point for reforming the concept of public leadership?
Well, it is a tall order to say that the solution is for public leaders to think critically, morally, and with a goal of developing more integrative understanding of our world. How does that happen?
After all, Athens fell victim to a failure to do just that. Human nature does not change easily – if at all.
All we can say is that defining the problem is a first step.
As stated above, Primo-Europe considers this issue to be of primary importance, and our discussions with many individuals has reinforced our view that promoting efforts to directly address the public leadership (risk leadership) challenge provides the substance of our future work.
Certainly, we would argue that a knowledge of risk, uncertainty, and complexity constitutes one of the key ingredients of effective leadership and we intend to focus on that specific challenge as well.
The concept of risk leadership can be possibly enriched with key leader capacities of reflection, connection and stewardship. In our view these can contribute to the reduction of risks caused by leaders themselves and improve the quality of public and private governance and management in general.
John O’Dea is secretary general and board member of Primo Europe and former secretary general and board member of UDITE.