Coaching Welsh Directors: Can you pass The Statesman Paradox?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had several one-to-one personal coaching discussions with Executive Directors in the Welsh public sector. Whilst each session has been deeply personal, different and unique that has been an overarching ‘meta-narrative’ in and between them, that has been bubbling away with my own sense-making. The reality is that I am not quite sure how to fully or properly express this. And, therefore, this blog is my own personal attempt to ‘get it out of my heart’ and on to a page that it may invite challenge, and also help me to write to my-self as a part of my own first-person inquiry process (see Reason & Bradbury, 2002).

Stated briefly, it has struck me how successful leaders are getting ‘stuck’. Each has significant personal strengths which will not come as too much as a surprise given that they are Executive Directors with a median budget of £ 1.1 billion of public sector money. Each of them has strengths around strategic design; personal resilience; influencing and negotiating skills, and political acumen for working in complex, political systems. In the same way, as we review their personal and organisational achievement there are evidence-based success that bring to mind a deep sense of achievement, meaning and pride (in the positive sense) not avarice.

But here comes the thing. It is slightly elusive. These skills, strengths, experiences and values seem to turn in on themselves. But why? The Welsh Government policy framework calls for a new leadership skill. It is a word used often and understood, it seems, just a little. Collaboration. Suddenly, we ask highly competitive, driven, challenging and individual leaders that fully appreciate, and can energise, systems under their ‘span of control’ to drop these skills to the ground.. and surrender their own organisational strategic needs..as we ask them to think, feel and value something very different. Almost odd.

To give this some texture, in my own psychology, I call this the ‘statesman paradox’.

We suddenly ask Directors to start with a fresh, new frame of reference. But it gets more demanding as the question is underpinned by a new value-system too. We get them to ask: What is in the best interests of the citizens of Wales? For clarity-this is just over 3.0 million men, women and children that live in Wales.

The paradox it seems to me is this. To date, each of these successful Directors and CEOs have worked incredibly hard under their own ‘span of control’ and each of them (that I have talked this through with) have a profound internal locus of control too. They are highly skilled at making things happen that fall under their legitimate authority. That is to say, their own organisations. They are fantastic at strategically bringing scarce resources to bring to bear evidence-based outcomes on…their own patch. They are organisers par excellence. Their career paths demonstrate (both to themselves and others) that these skills, strengths and experiences help them to succeed. Therefore to gain promotion, and consequently high credibility, so that you can rise-up ‘through the ranks’ these are the skills you need. You will recognise this pattern I am sure.

But then…and here comes the paradox. At the very ‘pinnacle’ of their careers; we ask them to “give-up their most cherished and deeply held beliefs, values and skills” (as described by one of them recently to me) and do something completely different. Totally at odds. In complete contradiction!

We ask them to start first with a statesman like frame of reference by asking: What is the right thing to do for all the citizens of Wales? In other words: Forget competing for scarce resources for your organisation for just one moment. Forget the embodied value of competition that has successfully brought you to this point in your career. Forget your own span of control; because much of what we are now asking of you will be in other organisations over which you have no control. And, to make matters even more complex, by definition when working at this all-Wales level- you are looking around a room that is full with people with the same set of skills, strengths and values as yourself! Oh my goodness!

When Directors ‘pass this test’ they go through a more or less ‘agonising’ stage in their personal life, in their careers, and in their embodied values. One says it like this:

When I heard the words come from my heart that said I was willing to implement a system that was not in my own organisations self-interest so that other organisations would realise the benefits as well as my own something peculiar had happened. That night I had a sleepless night. I wondered if I had ‘lost my edge’ or that this meant I was becoming weak. It is nine months later and I realise now that this was a marked transition. Am I stronger or weaker? Neither. I simply understand collaboration in a different way. A more profound way.”

It seems to me that any future Welsh leadership development should include this paradox as a key leadership stage of we are to suceed in our ambitions as a devolved Country. I will leave aside, for the moment, of whether there are different values from Welsh ‘home-grown’ talent when compared with other leaders developed from outside Wales- as I think such a debate is a red herring. What we do know, empirically, is that leadership in the main, can be trained, coached and developed. This assertion seems a healthy response. There is, of course, sound evidence that a diverse workforce is a good and worthwhile thing.

As for the question around core cultural/personal values I will explore this for a future blog.