Organisational leadership in Wales

Colin Heyman considers the quality of organisational leadership in Wales

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review was entitled “If humble people make the best leaders, why do we fall for charismatic narcissists?”. It pointed out “the research is clear: when we choose humble, unassuming people as our leaders, the world around us becomes a better place. Yet instead of following the lead of these unsung heroes we appear hard-wired to search for superheroes……”

Whilst there are obvious political implications in the article,  I would like to focus more on our organisations. Here also, too often charismatic, ‘strong’ leadership is sought after, appreciated and promoted. Yet surveys of leadership in organisations reveal considerable dissatisfaction with the quality of leadership in Wales.

Dissatisfaction impacts on employee engagement, and engagement impacts on productivity – a less satisfied employee is a less engaged employee, and a less engaged employee produces less, so one indicator of dissatisfaction with leadership is productivity.  In 2016 the Office for National Statistics reported that the UK productivity gap had widened to its worst level since records began, whilst in Wales labour productivity was almost 20% below the UK average. 

This is not to say that there aren’t some excellent leaders in Wales, from politicians to religious leaders to entrepreneurs to community leaders, some of whom I am privileged to work with. However I do believe they are in the minority.

I often use the model of ‘Eras of Leadership’, shown below:


Type of Leadership Decisions/power Behaviour/style
Classical Great Man Charismatic Directive, Narrow power base Autocratic Commanding


Neo classical Visionary, Transformational, Consultative – Shared power Inspirational, Motivational
Modern Authentic, Strengths based Collaborative, Dispersed power Servant leadership

Emotionally Intelligent



By emotional intelligence is meant, amongst other things, the ability to be self aware, to manage your emotions and adapt your actions to what will work best for the people around you. It’s a model of both authenticity and flexibility.

The term “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970. He wrote: “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural/ feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions………..The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons?”

Or to quote Sheryl Sandberg: “Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence”

It seems clear from this model and from the other sources quoted that to get the best out of our people and make the best of our country, we need these newer qualities and skills of modern leadership, embodied in the ideas of emotional intelligence and engagement.

Yet we seem to choose such leaders less often. I recently met a senior leader in a Welsh public organisation a couple of times. Whilst he has lots of vision and was very businesslike, I found him completely oblivious to what was going on around him. The other people I was with came out of the meeting and it was clear that he had got some business done but had not built relationships – indeed we all felt quite wary of him. Does it matter? He got the business done. Yes, I think it does. This person is a senior leader in a public body that provides services, and to do that he needs to build relationships with the public and with his employees. Our wariness will not help him get the business done next time.

What can we do about it? I believe passionately that we need to develop leaders in Wales that have more self-awareness, more people and emotional skills.

To achieve this a number of things would need to change, amongst them the following:

  1. The culture of our organisations – and our country – would have to change to value more the skills of those people who exhibit these skills and encourage them into leadership, and less to emphasise charisma and ‘strength’.
  2. Leaders would need to be developed not just in the traditional ways of MBAs, but also in ways that increase their emotional intelligence, and enable them to operate in a different ways with different people, to be conscious of the effect they are having and to choose to change when appropriate.
  3. A much greater emphasis would need to be placed on values based leadership and on transformational rather than transactional leadership. The Leading Wales Awards go some way towards this, for example in their emphasis on engagement this year, one of the outcomes of this sort of leadership.

In some ways Wales is a world leader. As an Englishman who has settled in Wales and lived here for 30 years and loves and is proud of the country where I live, I would like to see Wales being a pioneer in other ways. Cannot the country that has produced such great actors, artists, sports people, and political leaders, not be the country that leads the world in producing a new style of emotionally intelligent leaders, too?  




Colin Heyman works for Maine-stream, a Leadership Development and Diversity consultancy specialising in improving people’s skills at leadership, influencing and working with difference

2 thoughts on “Organisational leadership in Wales

  1. This chimes perfectly with the principles of co-production with Wales and the Co-production Network for Wales leading the field in the world. It’s in line with the two other things Wales is famous for: mutuality and social justice. 🙂

  2. The concept of ‘servant leadership’ begins not with Robert Greenleaf in 1970 but with Jesus of Nazareth in circa 33 – see Luke 22.26, etc. The key concept is not so much ’emotional intelligence’ as humility – a strange idea in a world where leadership is associated with the egotism of Obamas and Trumps, but the point is that all organisations take their lead from the top and, if a leader is seen to be out for himself, he cannot expect a higher ethos of service from his subordinates.

    In theory, all organisations, in both public and private sectors, exist to serve others. Even the most ruthless business depends for its profits on its ability to persuade its customers that it can provide them with something they need or value or want – in other words, on its ability to serve them.

    A genuine ethos of service is therefore a genuine competitive advantage.

    The specific problem in Wales is that ‘service’ sounds a bit like subservience. It goes against socialistic notions of equality. So, paradoxically, we end up with a singularly arrogant public sector leadership class with a fine sense of its own entitlement and an underdeveloped private sector leadership class, small in both numbers and influence.

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