2 min read

The paradox of public leadership (or: just give them the damn picnic table)

The paradox of public leadership (or: just give them the damn picnic table)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”

“I must be cruel to be kind”

“The child is the father of the man”

Literature is full of paradoxes—ideas that are both contradictory and true. Whether it's Dickens, Shakespeare, or Wordsworth, paradox provokes questioning. It gives us pause to ask, " What's going on here?"

Greg McKeown, in Essentialism, talks about the 'paradox of success.' He argues the more options we have, the more distracted we become from our highest point of contribution. Makes sense to me. In Not An MBA, we learn about the 'paradox of leadership'. As in, the further we advance in our career, the further we move away from our original source of value (the skills and subject matter expertise for which we were hired), and from the observable impact of our contribution, too.

In a managerial, bureaucratic landscape filled with reports, meetings, and emails, it can be hard to feel satisfied, even if we intellectually understand the value of our role.

“He who confronts the paradoxical exposes himself to reality.” - Friedrich Dürrenmatt 

This paradox is also evident in ambitious, well-meaning public sector organisations. The more we add to our plate and evolve, transform, and grow, the more we risk drifting away from how we originally - and possibly best - add value.

In a recent meeting with a client, I mentioned the frustration of strategic planning (of which I'm generally a fan!) stymying community outcomes.

If the community collectively asks for new equipment for their public space, the Council is more likely to defer their request to a municipality-wide spatial planning process than to grant it. This same Council will bemoan the community's lack of engagement, spend six figures on a consultation strategy, and wonder how to "tell their story better."

18 months later, if they're lucky, the community may get their equipment—but it took a long time, a lot of people, many meetings, and some expensive reports and plans to get there. What if we just believed the community and provided the equipment? Our pathway to 'engaged, thriving communities' might get much simpler.

The paradox in this example is how good intentions and values-based choices - for Council, important things like clear planning, fair prioritisation, and transparent decision-making - can lead to perverse outcomes. By putting process first, we compromise the most important objectives: unintended community engagement, collective ownership and care for public spaces, localised solutions, partnerships, etc.

Maybe the decision was right. Maybe escalating the call on the equipment was fair. It often is. It's still worth asking questions and challenging assumptions along the way. We should always assume the road to hell is paved with good intentions - especially in the public sector - and stay vigilant to the trap and allure of complication solutions.

What if we used the paradox of leadership to examine the choices we make in our teams and organisations?

I think it's worth asking tricky questions like…  

  • What do we assume about the services we deliver, the areas we are involved in, or how we do things?  
  • How have these assumptions shaped our evolution as a team or organisation?  
  • Do we understand the core value we deliver?  
  • When should we stop specific programmes – or should we do them forever? 
  • Is this the best use of our time and energy?  
  • Are there others who would do a better job of this? 
  • Could there be other options we haven't considered? 

And possibly most importantly:

  • Is there a much simpler way of achieving this outcome?

Til next week,

A

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