Modern leadership is about being humble and accessible

26 Oct 18

Financial sustainability, the digital revolution and leaders surrounding themselves with people not afraid to ask questions were themes in Solace’s annual summit last week. The organisation’s spokesperson for local government finance Martin Reeves explains.


The theme of this year’s Solace Summit was ‘Future Horizons and the question on all of our minds was how to lead well into a future that looks so uncertain.

Solace President Jo Miller got us off to a rousing start with her opening remarks, observing that it has never felt harder to be a public service leader.

But she also noted that our jobs are not harder than the challenges faced by families in our communities struggling to feed their children or heat their homes, or our frontline colleagues doing their best to support them.  Our responsibility as leaders is to hold our own anxiety so that we can help our communities find a positive way forward. This is of course easier said than done and what we must never lose is the raw authenticity, passion and grounded sense of social justice embodied in Jo’s leadership.

I think this is important to reflect on because it demonstrates why the Solace Summit is so powerful and re-energising, despite the challenges. Instead of a lot of pontificating, witnessed in numerous other showcases, we often share our doubts and questions as much as our ideas and achievements. I’m really proud that we create a space to be vulnerable, as well as thoughtful and reflective.  Modern leadership isn’t about having all of the answers; it’s about opening up the thinking process by being humble and accessible.

There was a lot of rich learning and dialogue at the summit but I thought 3 key themes might be of particular interest to Public Finance readers:

1. Securing financial sustainability. During our plenary on the comprehensive Spending Review, a straw poll of delegates showed that most believe that the likeliest outcome for local government will be a continued pattern of emergency cash injections in lieu of a long term plan. The permanent secretary [Melanie Dawes] assured us that sustainability is at the “forefront” of officials’ minds. How confident are we that this will translate into action? As a sector, we appreciate how hard Ministry of Housing, Local Government and Communities’ ministers and officials have fought to secure the historic victory that is the lifting of the housing borrowing cap.  The problem is that local services cannot afford to wait another decade or more for the next big win.

2. Harnessing the digital revolution. As part of a plenary on transformation, we were asked to reflect on how many of us have ever worked in an organisation which did not exist before the digital revolution. No one put their hand up.  That response illustrated what a steep hill we are climbing as a sector in trying to drive genuine transformation. It is humbling, but I also believe that there is great value in being honest about the challenges we are facing and our own shortcomings.  We might not be there yet, but we have an appetite to learn. We certainly found that there are a lot of allies out there willing to help us.  And above all of course, this is not about the technology or the digital platforms, but rather a mind-set shift in how we design services, create bold, disruptive solutions and maintain our currency and relevance in such a fast-changing context.

3. Avoiding ‘wilful blindness’. The keynote address was delivered by Margaret Heffernan, who spoke powerfully about the risks we face as leaders when we surround ourselves only with people who think like us and create (unwittingly or not) environments where people are afraid to question us.  I’ve been particularly reflecting on this point since the session I chaired at Summit, when CIPFA’s Rob Whiteman suggested that Solace’s response to its proposed financial resilience index read as “complacency” to him.  I would argue that our response, in fact, flagged up that councils are actually juggling multiple risks right now so a more nuanced and multi-faceted tool to measure wider resilience is called for.  But there were also other reflections that Rob shared about finance directors not feeling supported that we are keen to understand and discuss further. Only through this kind of respectful, evidence-based and robust discussion can we do justice to the importance of this debate.

As we left Brighton, I felt even more energised and resolved to fight for local services. I would urge you to take a look at the Call for Action that we published, setting out our recommendations to secure long-term sustainability for local services alongside a 10-point plan to stabilise them in the short term. 

We have already seen a small, yet important ‘win’ with HM Government agreeing to bring forward the settlement timing for local government in line with Solace lobbying through Andrew Hudson’s Review.

But we have to keep seeking out the toughest discussions, be more robust, integrated and coherent as a sector than ever before, so we can keep presenting solutions.  Our residents deserve no less.

  • Martin Reeves
    Martin Reeves

    Solace (Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers)’s spokesperson for local government finance and Coventry City Council chief executive

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