15 December 2017

Public sector leadership: what can be learned from Grenfell?

The Grenfell Tower tragedy sent shockwaves across the nation. As the ongoing public inquiry aims to uncover what exactly went wrong, public sector organisations across the country are asking themselves serious questions.

What can public sector leaders learn to ensure the organisations they lead have the processes and systems in place to prevent a similar tragedy from taking place? And, how can public sector organisations ensure they have the right leadership structures in place?

Chain of command

Some leaders at the very top of their organisation do not receive clear direction from their board. Good leaders know to push back and can gain strength from a solid chain of command below them. They know they cannot be experts in absolutely everything, so they establish mechanisms to catch red flags – particularly those that are technical or risk-related.

The key learning is for boards to provide clear instruction and processes, whilst welcoming two-way communication and fresh perspectives. Leaders should also ensure that robust scenario-planning is a regular occurrence.


Governance, and holding operational leaders to account for managing risks, is especially important where services are delivered via third parties. Leaders and their teams should be informed and courageous enough to confidently communicate the ‘who, what, where, why, when and how’ of any project. Though this direct approach may feel uncomfortable at first, it will attract more integrity and trust in their organisation’s actions.

Commercial head, social heart

Occasionally, leaders receive criticism for not displaying enough care and empathy towards their constituents, however competent they may be at the more functional aspects of their role. No leader should allow themselves to appear invisible or disconnected. Venturing too far into ‘balancing budgets and running a tight ship’ mode, sees public sector leaders risk forgetting they are there to work for people.

To help address this, senior candidates, at both executive and non-executive level can be assessed more thoroughly around their motivations and behavioural impact, during the recruitment process. This data about the impact of leaders’ styles on those they lead will highlight any risks that their approach might raise on the job. It also provides a more robust review of the candidate and complements testing and interviewing for technical skills and previous experience.

Even better than a personal leadership profile alone is a whole team view of leadership capability in the context of current and future challenges. This might be assessing the organisation’s attitude to risk, for example, during a period of required transformation or testing the resilience of the leadership cohort in the face of extreme challenges.

Succession planning

The search for public sector leaders should not start with a vacancy to fill. Succession planning should feature particularly strongly in public sector teams, where inside knowledge and experience within the organisation and community is invaluable. Succession should be treated as an ongoing, longer-term process, rather than a one-off event, so organisations should be constantly monitoring and nurturing talent internally to build a pipeline of potential leaders. Internal mentoring and training is vital to ensure people are upskilled beyond their core strengths.

The need for upskilling applies to leaders as well. We cannot expect leaders to have an immediate deep technical knowledge of everything they become involved in, but there should be processes in place to identify and address gaps and pressure points early on.

Final thoughts

Though a democratically-accountable environment does not always result in high public praise for success, the price for failure can be severe. Today’s leaders require a commercial head and a social heart. They must establish a strong chain of command, be accountable, plan for succession, and inspire trust and openness across both internal and external networks. Only then can leaders best fulfil their core, all-important duties, of serving and forwarding the public cause.

Jody Goldsworthy is Senior Partner, Leadership and Talent Consultancy at GatenbySanderson.

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