Professor Maggie Atkinson…on leadership

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Currently Director of the children's team at iMPOWER, Maggie has been amongst other things, Children's Commissioner for England, Director of Children's Services in Gateshead, President of the ADCS and a member of Court at Grossetest University, Lincoln. Describing herself as a 'creative disrupter' driving positive change, Maggie has made a significant difference for countless children and families over her 37 years' work across children and young people's services. She continues to blaze a trail, supporting professionals leading and managing change across the country to improve services.

Inspiring from the front of the room, from the speaker’s space, matters.  But so does being tuned in, and making it clear you are. Without breaching the hierarchies that exist – and they always do, and they’re necessary - knowing when to say thanks, how to express that thanks, how to read whether people are coping or drowning.

David Cracknell, my boss in Cheshire County Council’s education team, had a huge impact on me as a leader. He didn’t lead by standing at the front and exhorting me or driving me on.  He led by letting me loose, delegating to the max, waiting for me to ask for direction then giving it in depth, detail, subtlety and creativity.

The biggest misperception people at work have about me is that I know most of what I’m doing, most of the time, and am confidently going about doing it. In fact, “Impostor Syndrome” is and has always been a major feature. There are moments when I doubt myself very deeply, and there have been times when that has led me to apply for a job somewhere else, too soon, on a “flee the scene” whim that goes nowhere but unsettles me nonetheless.

I love the sense of teamwork that goes with being part of a busy, successful, creative consultancy company: energy, focus, speed, ethics, passion, asking the questions that start with “yes … and…?” and then sitting with those doing the thinking at key points, especially when they are struggling.

The trait that derails more leaders’ careers than any other is Arrogance. The leadership approach that goes “I’ve got where I’ve got to because I’m special, I’m brilliant, I’m cleverer than you, I have willingly bought into my own myths and the flattery of my sillier followers, and you’d better show me due deference." You are not invincible, you are likely a lot less fabulous than you let yourself think in your most shining moments, and people you want to follow you will do so because you tell them to, not because they want to.  Which means when the smelly brown warm stuff hits the whirring blades, they will duck and you will get the lot.  And deservedly so.

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The best advice I’ve ignored in my leadership career wasn't really advice, it was a question. It was asked every time I moved from one thing to the next, usually by a colleague who was not prepared to take the risks I was proposing. "Are you sure you're ready?"

To someone looking to gain insight into becoming a more effective leader I would say read as much history as you can. And then, watch Star Trek and decide what the leadership dynamics AND the division of tasks are on the bridges of James Kirk, Jean Luc Picard, Katherine Janeway and Benjamin Sisko.  And then listen.  And then listen some more.  You do NOT know it all.

Long walks, preferably by wild seas and on high cliffs help me to unwind, as does bird watching, gardening, playing the piano, and the Northumbrian Smallpipes, and when I have the time, creative writing (poetry usually.) I am connected to the Taize community in Burgundy, where silence is key.  But if I’m mad? Muse’s “Super Massive Black Hole,” at full volume on the drive home usually hits the spot.

Being Children’s Commissioner for England was an amazing privilege. Definitely the scariest job I have ever done, the most creative and inspiring and emotionally difficult at the same time. I was expected to be fearless, clear eyed, far sighted, dogged, articulate and evidence based on children’s behalf, and to speak truth to both politicians and officials, locally and nationally. Never a job like it, before or since.

Being a first generation DCS (2005-2010) was immensely complex, hard work, requiring immense patience as well as a lot of daring, far sightedness and creativity.  It was undertaken in the glare of local scepticism and national over-direction.  And it made a huge difference in communities, in the way professions talked about as well as to each other, and worked together.  It was exhausting, and exposed, and completely amazing.

I have had some remarkable role models in my life, all the way back to my parents and teachers, right through my university days, in every school I taught in (where they could as easily be pupils as colleagues!) every Council I ever worked for, certainly when I was Children’s Commissioner for England from 2010-15, and now in my role as a Management Consultant.  I am married to another role model, a Secondary Modern school educated man who is also a leader in his field of engineering, an OU Honours Graduate who narrowly missed a 1st, and somebody who will add to the sum of knowledge with his Masters, who is also the humblest and funniest person I know.  And who keeps me from believing in even the smallest element of my own hype.

Over the last 37 years I have worked with scores of the most amazing, talented, committed and ethical people in a very wide range of places and spaces including where I work now.   I can honestly say I have learned something – often something quite profound and perception changing – most days, in most jobs I have ever done.  Keeps me on my toes! 

Being remembered, I think, by anybody, would be a legacy I’d be happy with.

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