Monday, 26 October 2015

Leading the city

How should cities like Bristol be lead? At present Bristol has an elected Mayor. This system is not likely to change in the short term. The government is keen on Mayors and Bristol has elections in May 2016 where the first ever elected Mayor, George Ferguson, will try to win a second term. Inevitably leadership style and qualities will be part of the debate.

We will have one individual whose job is to be the directly elected leader of Bristol, representing its citizens’ interests, leading the city council and all its services (turnover about £1billion a year). At least one advantage of the current system is ‘They know who I am and they know who to blame’ as George Ferguson himself said on the Daily Politics recently.

On the basis of the rise, in recent years, in both councillor numbers and party membership, Marvin Rees for Labour and Tony Dyer for the Greens are the top two candidates that might replace George Ferguson. It will be interesting to see if either of them say that a new law should be passed and a Bristol referendum held on whether to retain the Mayoral system (Bristol voted 53% for, 47% against on a very low turnout of just 24% in the May 2012 referendum and the turnout in the first Mayoral election in Nov 2012 was just under 28%; more here).

Given the focus on electing one person the leadership style of that person, professed and actual, is a key factor. Leadership is about having and communicating a vision, providing direction, delegating, coaching, ensuring implementation of plans and motivating people. It depends on the philosophy, personality and experience of the leader.

Different situations call for different leadership styles, consider: an emergency; a highly motivated and aligned team with a high and common level of expertise (the Mayor’s Cabinet?). Style adopted needs to be appropriate to the situation and to effectively achieve objectives and balance interests. Leaders that can adapt to suit different contexts have a distinct advantage in terms of achieving success.  

Leadership styles feature: engagement; authoritarian; participative and democratic; free-rein (or laissez-faire); narcissistic; toxic; task-oriented; and relationship oriented elements in different combinations in different individuals and contexts.

Engagement involves both leaders and those working with and for them in understanding the existing conditions, whether its government cuts, city traffic congestion, health and income inequalities, housing availability, tenants rights…and how they can collectively assist in addressing them. It means reaching out to the public, councillors, officers and others to better understand their concerns and interests and openly and honestly to provide a solid foundation for improvements. This collective approach, perhaps exemplified (?) up to a point by Mayor Ferguson’s ‘rainbow cabinet’ made up of councillors of a range of political colours, is akin to democratic or participative styles of leadership which involve sharing decision-making abilities, promoting common interests and practicing social equality.

This approach can sometimes delay decisions and a broad consensus may not always be achieved. Sometimes the consensus achieved may be rather fuzzy, vague or lowest common denominator in nature. So, under certain circumstances someone has to decide and then be held to account – Mayor Ferguson would say it was taking ‘tough’ decisions. If you have a Mayoral system then the whole point is that someone can be clearly identified as where the buck stops and responsibility cannot or should not be passed elsewhere.

The authoritarian (or autocratic) style is where decision-making is centralised and leader focused. The Mayoral system naturally leans in this direction and Bristol’s current Mayor has been accused by some of not listening to and involving people enough, certainly over issues such as residents parking schemes, selling the council’s freehold ownership of Avonmouth and Portbury docks, sacking his cabinet member Mark Bradshaw…(more here). Next years elections will test what Bristol people generally think about this.

In the extreme the authoritarian style does not entertain any suggestions or initiatives from those he or she regards as subordinates. Being authoritarian is one way of trying to strongly motivate people and it can permit quick, firm decision-making. It appeals to some people. It may be necessary in urgent situations. It does not appeal to me however and it’s sustainability is doubtful as it does not engender fairness, loyalty, ownership of decisions and using all skills available.

I don’t favour authoritarianism as a general rule but I do want clear, fair leadership, so free-rein or laissez-faire approaches don’t appeal to me either. With this style there may be a leadership position but it does not provide leadership, leaving the system, such as it is, to fend for itself with little or no guidance or rules. Those that could be working with and for the leader and team decide their own policies and methods. They might, given the lack of direction or encouragement be self-motivated to be creative and innovative. They might be the complete opposite. Different people or teams may take different, conflicting, confusing, incoherent approaches – not good for genuinely solving problems.

Authoritarian and free-rein leadership styles are particularly prone becoming narcissistic, where the priority is the leader themselves - at the expense of their people/team/problem-solving. Negative characteristics such as: arrogance, dominance and a range of hostility levels, are a feature here. Mayor Ferguson has been and will be accused, rightly or wrongly, of at least some these (one of the factors in a Mayoral system is that the person elected is likely to promote themselves a lot, as in much of politics, not least in the attempt to be re-elected). This is a pretty common leadership style, driven by self-absorption, ego, power and desire for admiration.

There is always the risk of leadership being or becoming toxic. This is when having responsibility over a group of people or an organization goes badly wrong (more likely if the style of leadership is consistently authoritarian or free rein or narcissistic or perhaps lurching between these three, not an uncommon occurrence). Abuses of the leader–follower relationship occur and the group or organization – or the city - are left in a worse condition than when he/she began to lead. The 2016 Mayoral election enables voters to give their verdict on the Mayors policies, leadership and its outcomes since 2012 (as well as being about policies and leadership for the future, compared with the other candidates).


We need leaders/leadership able to employ a number of styles depending on the context, whilst generally adopting an engaging, participative, democratic approach. This is the way to be focussed on both the tasks and the relationships at hand when leading. This means balancing: focus on the jobs to be done and relevant interactions amongst people; producing solutions, meeting goals, deadlines and target outcomes, whilst staying active on peoples’ general wellbeing and satisfaction; emphasising the value of good communication, trust, confidence and appreciation for efforts. That’s my take on good leadership for Bristol.