Yes Minister! Survival Skills for Public Sector Leaders?

Yes Minister



“Yes Minister” is a totally hilarious sitcom (full of wit and loaded with satire) and in my view one of the best of very British TV programmes. It was written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn. According to Wikipedia it was first transmitted by the BBC between 1980 and 1984 and was split over three, 7-episode series. It had a huge critical and popular success. The series also received a number of awards; including several BAFTAs and in 2004 was voted sixth in the Best Sitcom poll. Quite a success story!

It was so popular that the BBC very wisely produced a sequel entitled “Yes, Prime Minister”, and this ran between 1986 to 1988. In total there were 38 episodes which is a significant achievement by today’s standards. What I have also learned is that several of the very best episodes were then adapted for BBC Radio, and later a stage play was produced in 2010.

So what is it all about? Before I describe it can I just say that one of the main reasons I find it so fascinating and entertaining is that I have family, friends and old school chums that are currently civil servants and they all testify that the key themes and ideas resonate with rich authenticity.

As you might have guessed Yes Minister is set principally in the private office of a British Cabinet minister in the (fictional) ‘Department of Administrative Affairs’ in Whitehall, London. So the programmes substance or dynamic interplay, is the ways by which the British civil service ‘comes-up against’ Ministerial politics, policies and tactics. Stated simply, Ministers want to get things done quickly whereas the culture of the civil service is risk averse and cautious. Therein sets the tension!

With the scene set it..the series follows the hilarious ministerial career of The Rt Hon Jim Hacker MP, who is superbly played by Paul Eddington. You cannot but ‘howl’ as his various struggles to formulate and enact legislation or even effect quite simple departmental changes are frustrated, or subtly opposed, by the British Civil Service, and in particular his Permanent Secretary Sir Appleby (who is skillfully played by Nigel Hawthorne).

Jim Hacker’s Secretary is a chap called Bernard Woolley who is played by Derek Fowlds. What is equally amusing is the ways by which he is constantly caught between a ‘rock and a hard place’ of the dynamics between his commitment to his Minister, Jim Hacker, and then his loyalty to the Civil Service. The pressure from the latter embodied and enacted all too skilfully by the commanding presence from Sir Humphrey. As the Psychologist, Jung, once remarked the most emotive and memorable human albeit psychological drama’s can be traced to a ‘triangular dynamic of relationships’.

So what can we learn as we apply this to us and leadership development and even leadership career longevity?

What strikes me is that in this series the civil service acts as an effective ‘buffer’ between key public sector and business leaders and the Minister. This acts as a form of relational protection and, of course, ‘saves face’ when disagreements might arise. What do I mean by this? Well, putting this bluntly what any public sector leader does not want is any Minister having to put things very directly to them ‘mano a mano’ in any form. This is process failure!

This latter ‘end point’ reminds me of the proverbial ‘kiss of death’. Consequently, a wise, mature and ‘grounded’ public service leader would be actively looking for and rightly understanding any Ministerial ‘clues, hints and points’ from which to ‘get under the message’ so as to prevent the process failure noted above from actually occurring. And, in this same way, an effective and bright civil servant would also be looking to make active facilitation to this same end.

So, my advice is.. when the Minister speaks- pay full attention and when he provides ‘hints and tips’…pay even more attention. #survivalskills


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