Big Society and Transformational Leadership

July 21, 2010

In the UK, one of the big ideas of the new coalition government is that of Big Society. This concept favoured by Prime Minister David Cameron can be tested against the principles of transformational leadership, originally attributed to President Kennedy

In a launch speech in Liverpool this week, [July 2010] The Prime Minister was reported by The Guardian as saying that Big Society was

“..about liberation, the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from [Government] elites to the man and woman on the street. This is a powerful idea for blindingly obvious reasons. Micro-management just doesn’t work. It has turned able, capable, individuals into passive recipients of state help with little hope for a better future. It has turned lively communities into dull, soulless clones of one another. So we need to turn government completely on its head.”

Liverpool, Windsor and Maidenhead, the Eden valley in Cumbria, and Sutton in London would be in the vanguard, getting help to set up local projects, ranging from transport to improved broadband provision. Cameron said these places would be big society’s training grounds. Proposed initiatives include relocating community centres, building renewable energy projects, community buyout of pubs, spreading broadband access, giving the public more say over local spending decisions including parks budgets, and further powers to parish councils; increased volunteering at museums, developing neighbourhood media and digital content; working on sustainable transport services, developing youth projects, and creating “green living” champions.

The three strands of the big society agenda include social action (for which the government had to foster a culture of voluntarism and philanthropy); public service reform eliminating centralised bureaucracy “that wastes money and undermines morale” – and community empowerment, “creating communities with oomph”, the neighbourhoods being “in charge of their own destiny”.

Reactions to the Speech

Reactions to the speech were mostly predictable. Political opponents reacted not to the idea but its implementation.

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Tessa Jowell called Mr Cameron’s speech “a brass-necked rebranding of programmes already put in place by a Labour government. We welcome the [Government’s} decision to continue our work in partnership with local communities, but these projects are dependant on funding and resources being put in place. It is therefore highly unlikely that civil society will become ‘bigger’ due to the large public spending cuts that are being put forward by this government.”

Norman Smith, Chief political correspondent, BBC Radio 4 noted that

The ‘big society’ is David Cameron’s Big Idea. His aides say it is about empowering communities, redistributing power and fostering a culture of volunteerism. Perhaps it is no wonder that Tory candidates during the general election found it difficult to sell the idea to voters. So why is David Cameron returning to this theme?

In part because he does view it as his answer to Big Government – but there are also more basic political motives. First, it’s about providing a different agenda to the day by day litany of cuts, cuts and more cuts. Second, it is – as his aide Eric Pickles has acknowledged about saving money. If people are doing things for free then you don’t have to pay public servants to do them for you. So beneath the grand-sounding philosophy there is hard-nosed, practical politics behind the ‘big society’ message.

Leadership Theory

One of the so-called new leadership theories of the 1980s was that of transformational leadership. This developed from studies of leaders such as John Kennedy. Such leaders who were often but not necessarily charismatic, were able to transform society by transforming the individuals within society to aspire to less selfish ends.

The theory has an appeal to idealists of all political colors. It was associated with vision and idealized influence. Although retaining its popularity on leadership courses, it also attracted critics who felt that it retained too much of earlier charismatic principles which seemed to require the intervention of ‘The Great Man’ to achieve desired social uplift. This suggests a leadership dilemma: transformation in this way is believed to require empowering, but the agent of empowering is the highly empowered and charismatic leader. Students of leadership may find it instructive to examine the big society proposal as a map for transformational change, and test it against such theoretical dilemmas.


Obama: Change comes to Washington

August 29, 2008

Barack Obama adds a creative twist to his message of change. In his acceptance speech for the Presidential nomination he insists that America will change. But change will not come from Washington, he insists, it will come to Washington

It was a speech deliberately echoing the “I have a dream” speech of Martin Luther King. King’s dream was of the community of races within America.

Obama also echoed John F. Kennedy, who insisted that Americans ask not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country.

But these echoes from the past reinforced Obama’s message for the future. In a creative leap, he turned the more simplistic change message on its head. Yes, America would change. But not because a new leader and administration in Washington would change America, but because America would change Washington. ‘Change comes to Washington’ he insisted.

This was the Obama combining policy with personality. The Obama avoiding what he has demonstrated in the past, avoiding burning bright intensifying the charisma of the leader. If anything, he seemed to be deliberately holding back for much of the speech lest the message was lost in the dazzle of full-wattage Obama.

There was plenty of yes and about the speech. Senator McCain? We are all patriots. That should not be an issue. [I remembered briefly the call by David Cameron, the newly appointed leader of the Conservatives to avoid Punch and Judy politics. Would the fine words last longer on this campaign than they did in the UK?].

But the dream was an old dream fulfilled rather than one freshly imagined

It is that promise that has always set this country apart – that through hard work and sacrifice, each of us can pursue our individual dreams but still come together as one American family, to ensure that the next generation can pursue their dreams as well.

The context of change was spelled out

Unlike John McCain, I will stop giving tax breaks to corporations that ship our jobs overseas, and I will start giving them to companies that create good jobs right here in America.
I will eliminate capital gains taxes for the small businesses and the start-ups that will create the high-wage, high-tech jobs of tomorrow.
I will cut taxes – cut taxes – for 95% of all working families. Because in an economy like this, the last thing we should do is raise taxes on the middle-class.

And for the sake of our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, I will set a clear goal as President: in ten years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East.

[On Foreign Policy] As Commander-in-Chief, I will never hesitate to defend this nation, but I will only send our troops into harm’s way with a clear mission and a sacred commitment to give them the equipment they need in battle and the care and benefits they deserve when they come home. I will end this war in Iraq responsibly, and finish the fight against al Qaeda and the Taleban in Afghanistan. But I will also renew the tough, direct diplomacy that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons

Did it work?

I don’t know. As an outsider, recently I have struggled to understand the impact of the politics of Scotland’s governing party as it seeks independence from England. What chance do I have of assessing the impact of Obama’s performance on his prospects of election as President?

One thing is clear. Barack Obama is an exceptionally creative leader. He is offering a clear choice for change, by invitation rather than exhortation. His message is that change comes from the people: encouraged but not dictated by its leaders. It is still a message requiring the audacity of hope for its full-hearted acceptance. And it is an invitation that captures the principle that we create the leaders we deserve.

Postscript

This post deliberately avoided replicating views of other observers. As I listened in cosy darkness, I did not pick up the context and visual impact of the speech. As Google listed around 1000 news reports on Obama this morning, there are plenty of reports available to chose from.