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An introduction to public leadership
An introduction to public leadership

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1.4.1 Leading with political astuteness

This is a photograph of (from left to right) Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin sitting next to one another.
Figure 7 Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta, 1945.

On the basis of extensive research carried out over a number of years, involving interviews and surveys with senior and middle managers in public services, Hartley and Fletcher (2008) established a framework of political skills and judgement. These are summarised in the table below.

Table 1 Framework of political skills and judgement
Personal skills
  • Having self-awareness of one’s own motives and behaviours.
  • Being able to exercise self-control and be open to others’ ideas.
  • Having a proactive disposition.
Interpersonal skills
  • Having ‘soft skills’ – being able to influence the thinking and behaviour of others; to gain buy-in without authority; to make people feel valued.
  • Having ‘tough skills’ – being able to negotiate; to withstand pressure from others; to handle conflict to achieve constructive outcomes.
Reading people and situations
  • Recognising different interests and agendas.
  • Understanding institutions, processes, systems and power relations.
Building alignment and alliances
  • Recognising difference and plurality and how to forge them into collaborative action.
  • Being able to work with differences and conflicts of interest.
  • Managing competing interests and building useful, realistic consensus.
  • Actively seeking out alliances and partnerships.
Strategic direction and scanning
  • Maintaining focus and action on organisational purpose.
  • Maintaining longer-term focus in the face of shorter-term pressures.
  • Being able to envision possible futures.
  • Noticing small changes that herald bigger shifts.
  • Managing uncertainty and maintaining open options.

Many of these skills are acquired rather than learned in formal situations: research (Hartley and Fletcher, 2008) indicates that they are generally acquired through experience of difficult or challenging events.

As you have seen, however, leadership cannot be considered solely as a set of personal skills and qualities. It must also be viewed, and is often best understood, within its context and with clear regard for the purposes it is intended to achieve. Context shapes leadership by creating constraints and opportunities for leadership action, while leadership action can, to some extent, shape the context through the management of meaning and the mobilisation of consent through communication. This is why reading the context is a critical aspect of political astuteness