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Monday 20 May 2019

Leslie Evans: What kind of leadership do we need today?

By Leslie Evans

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©Visual Eye/Dods

Speaking at our 2019 Women into Leadership Glasgow conference, Scottish Government Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans described the qualities leaders need in these "Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous" times. In her speech, Evans explained what we can do to help support and encourage women leaders, and poses that an "extra hour of outdoors play" could help us thrive.

Last weekend I was at a family celebration looking through photos of four generations of women in my family. These included my great grandmother Hannah, who moved home to enable my grandmother Florence (a single parent who’d fled an abusive husband) to leave the workhouse with her two children and work full time; my grandmother herself – in her domestic service uniform complete with white cap and frilled apron; my own mother in her Second World War army uniform; and her sister; my aunt with her illegitimate baby – my cousin – born and brought up (amidst considerable controversy) in the early 1950s.   

Those pictures brought home to me the extraordinary journey women have been on and are still on now in the 21st century.

And that is one of the reasons I’m so delighted to be speaking at this conference – and for the fourth time. I want to continue to demonstrate and reiterate my commitment to Women into Leadership. Why? Because, quite simply, it matters. 

It matters because it is part of our striving for equality – including women’s equality and gender equality. It matters because we need all the talents on offer from our society. It matters because it’s a key part of Scotland’s inclusive economy. And it matters to me personally as the first female Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government, as a woman, as a mother, indeed as a daughter, niece and granddaughter – and as a feminist.

I want to witness a world in which all kinds of women can flourish in all areas of political, social, and economic life – including leadership. 

And if my ambition to leave the Scottish Government more diverse in thought and culture and more capable of flex, change, and improvement is to be realised, then we need to encourage and support all kinds of women into leadership. Not least to help prepare us for the uncertainties and opportunities that lie ahead, and, indeed, those around us right now. 

You have an impressive and ambitious agenda ahead of you today. I want to frame your discussions with: firstly, my assessment of the kind of leadership we need and what that asks of us as leaders; secondly, what is currently preoccupying me about women into leadership; and, thirdly, to finish with a few reflections on my own leadership learning. 

Firstly – what kind of leadership do we need today? 

Our understanding of leadership has shifted from the ‘Great Man’ model (centred around one man) through to a ‘multifaceted’ model more fitted to globalisation and the digital age. Nowadays, leadership can come in many forms. Each of you is a leader in your own role, regardless of your title or responsibilities. 

Those of you who may have heard me speak before will recognise my assessment of the times we live in as Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous – these are VUCA times. But it is not enough to recognise this – we need to embrace it. Change will never be as slow as it is today. Leaders need to be comfortable with change and complexity. And it’s not enough merely to cope with it – we must add value, we must thrive, and we must grow. 

In addition, leadership is now a team sport. We must share clear common goals, a strong sense of collective endeavour and face the same direction however challenging this may prove to be.

Single and silo focus, and their accompanying leadership style: hero leadership, are unhelpful, undesirable and – particularly for those us in the public and third sectors – simply not feasible in this context. Indeed, these approaches mislead us and those we lead, they imply a simple and predictable landscape, one which we know to be false. 

So our role in these times has to be different. An academic called Dr Joanne Murphy has a neat phrase to describe it – she calls it ‘managing the entanglement’. One way of putting this is to say that managers and leaders do not solve problems – they manage messes! Perhaps a more positive description is to say that enabling leadership is about sense making, buffering tension, facilitating, injecting challenge, and feeling confident in both adaptive and administrative leadership functions. In these terms, leadership is not purely a technical challenge but also a behavioural one – we need to lead, shape, and effect real change by working with, and through, others.

Embracing such complexity requires a nuanced response. In the Scottish Government we have translated this into a clear message about what we expect our leaders to know, and what we expect them to be able to do. We’ve applied evidence to identify 4 dimensions of leadership: developing yourself; developing others; leading others and leading with others.

I want to draw out three implications of all of this for leaders.

Firstly, we need to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, accept constant change and embrace (not resist) VUCA. This is the new norm – a new equilibrium. Get over it. That means acting accordingly.  Sometimes success comes in bursts rather than in a final defining moment – so let’s recognise, savour and celebrate our daily achievements. It also means managing our well-being and building our resilience – taking care of ourselves and our colleagues. 

Secondly, we need to articulate our common goals – out loud and regularly.  The Scottish Government National Performance Framework has now been in place for over 10 years, building that sense of collective endeavour and interdependency for the SG and our partners in Scotland. The NPF and outcomes represent the northern star – and demand the particular kind of collaborative leadership I am describing here. As leaders, we should recognise and support our interdependency – and commit to each other’s success.

Thirdly, the current context means we can often feel we are in charge, but not necessarily in control. I know first-hand this is not easy. But even in a VUCA world – and a world with EU Exit and all the uncertainty it currently entails – we are not powerless. We have agency. We just need to differentiate between what we can shape versus what we can’t, be explicit about this with our teams and prepare, plan and chart progress accordingly. That takes quality leadership time. And that kind of leadership nurtures development of self and others. It sets the direction and moves through and with people, not on top of them.

Alongside and intertwined with this shift in leadership models, social change means more diversity in leadership. And that’s the second point I want to reflect on today. Women – including gay, disabled, and minority ethnic women – have been key agents in this shift. As I referenced earlier – we owe much to the women who have come before us for their ground-breaking activism, their leadership and, quite simply, their courage and persistence. These are exciting times to lead in the public sector with exciting opportunities. And there are women (though, let’s face it, not nearly enough) who have reached the top of their professions. 

But we won’t reach equality for women until all women are equal. It was American writer, feminist, and civil rights activist Audre Lorde who said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” 

There is still far to do to improve gender equality – and diversity much more widely – in the public sector. And I’d like to highlight two issues in particular which i have been reflecting on recently. The first relates to intersectionality.

At the Scottish Government, women comprise an increasing majority of our workforce. Though the gap is narrowing – they are still the minority within the SCS.  But how many ethnic minority women are making it? How many gay women? How many transgender women? Women with disabilities? Not many. And – given we have women working in our organisation from 16 to 60 years of age – how are we supporting younger women as well as the more mature? 

We need to be conscious of the multiple forms of discrimination across identities – in other words, intersectionality. We must recognise the social reality of the different identities women embody, and tackle the multiple elements of women’s inequality if we want to see women thrive in all areas, including in leadership. UCLA law Professor Kimberley Crenshaw, a pioneer of intersectionality theory, and who is visiting the University of Edinburgh this month, says: "If you don't have a lens that's been trained to look at how various forms of discrimination come together, you're unlikely to develop a set of policies that will be as inclusive as they need to be."

The Scottish Government is addressing intersectionality on a number of fronts, from design policy through to how we host a diverse and inclusive workforce and how we attract all the talents – not least to help us innovate and tackle inequalities but also to reflect the society we serve. 

We are taking a whole-systems approach – drawing on data we have and identifying and gathering what we don’t. We’re addressing the entire employee life cycle of our staff and paying particular attention to groups traditionally marginalised – from recruitment right through to retirement. We’re removing as many visible and invisible barriers as possible with the help of our vibrant and energetic employee networks (importantly with dedicated resources) and with active support from our most senior leaders. Some lies outside our role as employer, so policy colleagues are identifying policy levers to drive forward wider societal changes.

So far, so good – but what does this mean for each of us? It means lifting as you climb. It means supporting other women leaders, particularly from marginalised identities – whether that is socio economic, LGBTI, disabled women or ethnic minority women. Young women leaders are important, but so too are older ones – being in your third act should not render you invisible or negate your need for sisterly support.  To quote New York Congresswoman Ocasio Cortez: "Prevent division by championing one another – reject the zero sum that some communities win at a cost to others." 

The second issue I have been pondering relates to a book I read recently: ‘Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men’. If you haven’t read it, I urge you to get hold of a copy. In it, Caroline Criado Perez lays out the evidence of nuanced gender inequality. Perez shows us how, in a world largely built for and by men, we are systematically ignoring half the population. She exposes the ‘gender data gap’ – a gap in our knowledge that is at the root of perpetual, systematic discrimination against women. From government policy and medical research, to technology, workplaces, urban planning and the media, a pervasive but invisible bias can be seen which has a profound effect on women’s health and wellbeing, and indeed, our lives. For example, the vast majority of car safety features have been tested only on dummies based on “average” male bodies. And medical trials routinely don’t provide gender-disaggregated information. And those of you who queued for the ladies toilets this morning (and at every gig or event you’ve ever attended) know they weren’t designed by a woman. 

This gender data gap is, as Perez says, simply the product of a way of thinking that has been around for millennia and is therefore a kind of not thinking. A ‘double not thinking’ – men go without saying and women don’t get said at all. And this is evolving. Because our world is now increasingly reliant on data – Big Data, Big Truths, Big Algorithms and Big Computers. This makes the need to close the gender data gap even more urgent. If we are designing a world that is meant to work for everyone, we need women – and data about women – in the room. If the people taking decisions that affect all of us are all white, able-bodied men, that constitutes a data gap. We have to close the female representation gap. When women are involved in decision making and in research – women do not get forgotten. 

As the OECD has said in the past Without data you are just another person with an opinion. But you aren’t even that if you are a woman whose data doesn’t feature in the raw source material. I have asked all my senior team to read this book – and am looking forward to the responses and suggestions which will result. And I shall have the opportunity to discuss how Governments address this data gap with Caroline herself at the First Minister’s National Advisory Council on Women and Girls next month.

The final thing I want to do is provide some brief take-away points for you. I want to set out three qualities I think leaders need in the VUCA age, and three things that all of you can do today to encourage and support other women leaders.

The first of the qualities is tenacity – something which is maybe especially – but not exclusively – important to woman leaders In the face of prejudice, gender stereotyping, and unconscious bias, it takes grit and tenacity to stay the course. We need tenacity to make and see through – tough decisions, often in the face of easier alternatives. Believe me recent events mean I really know what this means. Tenacity is about persistence and resilience, too – knowing what helps you give of your best – and protecting time for it. 

Another important leadership quality is humility. Humility is essential if we are to remain open to learning, to new ideas and to practice collective and collaborative leadership in the pursuit of outcomes rather than mere targets. Focusing on outcomes means we in the public and third sectors do not, and cannot, know all the answers – not always easy to admit in a time when people demand simplicity and crave certainty. As Harvard Psychology Professor Ellen Langer says, “uncertainty is the most powerful position we can maintain”. We need to be less certain we know the right answer – not easy for the civil service given its history and traditional role. 

Humility also encourages and enables challenge – a key priority for me. I have restructured governance and assurance in the Scottish Government to encourage greater transparency and broader and deeper challenge – particularly important given that we have been serving the same political party for 10 years. Humility also means not taking yourself too seriously – those with children will appreciate how your family can ‘help’ with this. I remember some years ago I was showing my husband a video shot in my office, which at that time had a very large, titled, Jackson Pollock print on the wall. I was talking to camera about my own experience of leading change in the Scottish Government.  Whilst my husband was dutifully watching, my teenage son sloped past, peered over my shoulder at the screen and said: “Does it really say “bollocks” behind your head Mum?” So not just humility, but leaders should never take themselves too seriously!

Third quality I would pick out is curiosity. Practicing humility and being aware of uncertainty, sets the stage for openness, learning and curiosity. Be endlessly curious about what lies beyond, about what else could happen, about what you are seeing and hearing – where else could it resonate or apply? We need curious problem solvers. And your curiosity helps understand others’ view points and experience, it helps you to develop yourself and your own agility, and to therefore anticipate and adapt to the rapid pace of change.

These three attributes – tenacity, humility, curiosity – work in concert with each other. Tenacity keeps you going when the going gets tough. Humility serves as a nurturing host for curiosity. These attributes have served me well. Perhaps they could help you. 

I also want to leave you with three specific and simple things we can all do – starting today – to encourage and support other women leaders.

1. Challenge your own unconscious bias and that of others. Speak up and speak out. I find the question ‘really?’ helpful too. 

2. Mentor – traditional or reverse mentoring, informal or formal. Get the chemistry right and it’s gold dust. 

3. Create or join and promote an employee network dedicated to women. Make it open and inclusive, and fun!

Finally, let me leave you with two practical pieces of advice.

I recently heard a technical assessment of what helps children thrive, and I think it applies to all us. 1. Have an extra hour’s outdoor play, and 2. get an extra hour’s sleep. A good recipe I think.

And if all else fails, and on the bad days, we can turn to Elizabeth Taylor’s counsel: "Pour yourself a drink, put on some lipstick and pull yourself together."

Thank you. 


Throughout 2019, WiL conferences will be held across the UK. For more information, see the Women into Leadership website. FDA and Keystone members receive a significant discount on tickets.

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