Dame Sara Thornton reflects on a defining year for the public sector and what we learn from the Public Leaders Report 2021.

Read the full Public Leaders Report: Ministerial introduction · Supporting the NHS in its hour of need · Collaborating places · Extraordinary resilience and service · What do we know about public sector leaders · Looking ahead to 2022

When the National Leadership Centre was launched in September 2019, we could not have known how much the world was going to change just six months later. 

Across my 33-year career in the police service, I led teams that handled all kinds of crises and challenges: some were sudden and urgent, others slow burning; some were organisational issues, others sector-wide. Nothing was of the scale, complexity, and significance of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The stories and lessons we explore in the Public Leaders Report add up to a picture of a defining year for the public sector. In responding to COVID, the public sector’s relationships with citizens and communities changed, and barriers between organisations were overcome. The whole sector delivered extraordinary work for our citizens at a time of national crisis.

Inspirational and humbling stories

Through great adversity, the public sector has worked together and delivered in ways that nobody would have thought possible in February 2020. There are many inspirational and humbling stories from which we can learn.

It has not been perfect – of course not. As we move beyond the pandemic together, it is important to learn from the things that didn’t work as well, as much as the successes.

The report shows how testing it has been for those leading organisations as they have delivered and learned at great pace. Throughout the Public Leaders Report, Chief Executives reflect on how they’ve adapted their leadership approach and share their most important lessons for the future.

Working together in new ways

There have been many exceptional moments. Sometimes they were a result of crisis management and reflexive action, such as firefighters and police officers driving ambulances in London; sometimes they were leaders seizing the chance for bold, new ventures, such as those led by Chief Executives in Newcastle and Leicestershire. 

Some of what happened will remain of its time (moving universities entirely online, for example), and some of the work will be integrated into business continuity plans, to prepare us for future emergencies. Much of what was achieved should not be left behind, and leaders across the country want to carry forward the new collaborative practices that emerged from the pandemic.

That in itself is exciting, and every effort must be made to make it happen. The National Leadership Centre’s role will be important in enabling this future. Its work will create new connections across the country’s senior public leaders, inspire and develop great CEOs, and share its research on what works in leadership.

In reading the Public Leaders Report, I’m left with an almost tangible sense of the pride in public service felt by leaders across the country. I hope you take insight, knowledge, and inspiration from these stories and lessons. They will continue to be vital in the months ahead as we recover and build back better from the pandemic.

Dame Sara Thornton, Chair of NLC’s Advisory Board

Read the full Public Leaders Report: Ministerial introduction · Supporting the NHS in its hour of need · Collaborating places · Extraordinary resilience and service · What do we know about public sector leaders · Looking ahead to 2022