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Leadership in tough times

Paul Tarplett (Office for Public Management, London, UK)

International Journal of Leadership in Public Services

ISSN: 1747-9886

Article publication date: 17 August 2011




The purpose of this paper is to offer insights into the nature of the challenges leaders across local government face, the skills and personal qualities they need in the present environment and how to develop them. Local authorities, in common with other parts of the public sector, are facing drastic reductions in funding, rising demand for services and government expectations that individuals and communities will do more for themselves. This degree of change is unprecedented and it is helpful to understand more fully the emotional, intellectual and practical challenges that it poses. This paper arose out of work with leaders across local government.


Senior managers were helped to explore what sort of leadership they would need to give, in this context, in order to best serve service users, local citizens and communities. They could see the importance of innovation and collaboration but also recognised that cost pressures could easily create conflict and drive people back into their silos. Working with groups of managers, it was felt that they faced the connected challenges of managing themselves, leading and managing others in their organisation and the wider system.


The author found that to be effective, individual leaders needed cognitive and emotional skills and sensitivity, particularly: self‐awareness and understanding of others; the ability to manage interpersonal relationships; and complexity and systems thinking. At the organisational or partnership level, leaders needed a shared understanding of the challenges they face, a shared language for describing them and some shared tools and approaches for tackling them. This was best developed through joint endeavour.


Language matters, it influences how we think and we can use it to build collective leadership or allow it to fracture our organisations and wider public sector systems. The more we need to work outside of our own professional groups, each of which has its own language, the more important it becomes to recognise this and to actively seek to create something that is shared.



Tarplett, P. (2011), "Leadership in tough times", International Journal of Leadership in Public Services, Vol. 7 No. 3, pp. 235-244.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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