A banner showing the pictures of the seven CEOs that have been interviewed and the text "Portraits of Public Service Leaders"
Stephen Crookbain is the Director of the National Leadership Centre. He writes below about what these portraits tell us about the people leading the public sector.

Read and listen to each portrait by clicking the names below:

Steve Russell, CEO of Harrogate and District NHS Trust · Carol Matthews, CEO of the Riverside Group, a social housing provider · Stacey Burlet, CEO of Ryedale District Council · Betsy Bassis, CEO of NHS Blood and Transplant · Professor Susan Lea, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hull · Wayne Bowcock, Chief Fire Office of Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service · Helen Bailey, CEO of the London Borough of Sutton

A picture of public servants

How has it felt to lead within the public sector over the last year? When faced with a global pandemic, how have the people in charge of NHS trusts, local authorities, and universities reacted? How has their leadership had to change, and how has that affected the communities they serve, their colleagues and teams, and themselves? The National Leadership Centre interviewed seven Chief Executives to find out. 

These conversations tell a compelling story of leaders being inspired by the heroic work of their teams and adapting their leadership styles to the new context. 

Despite the leaders coming from what may seem like entirely different organisations – a social housing provider, a fire and rescue service, an arms length body – the common themes will strike a chord with anyone who has led an organisation through the last year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been all consuming and difficult.

The type of leadership needed was often different to what had gone before (and remains so while we are still responding to the pandemic). These leaders speak about stepping into a command and control role, often uncomfortably at first. The need for crystal clear direction and focused crisis management challenged many, especially in the early days.

Each of the leaders have been under intense personal pressure. To quote one leader, “stepping away from the pressure cooker” has been impossible. They have felt personally attached to their teams and their communities. Taking leave has felt hard. 

But they all recognise the unsustainability of that approach. Taking care of their mental health and emotional resilience has been the key to getting through a long term crisis – and bringing a healthy team with them. 

One common theme that really struck me is optimism.

These interviews haven’t all been about the challenges. One common theme that really struck me is optimism. Each leader is looking ahead and seeing the silver linings becoming enduring characteristics of the future. Better connections, better delivery, a better society as a result: that is what keeps them excited. 

How has it felt to lead the public sector over the last year? Hard. Very hard in ways it is important to understand and recognise. But it has also been associated with hope and determination. And there is a new level of pride, humility, and excitement. 

I hope you enjoy this interview series and find inspiration from it. Learning from each other is the core of continual development. And there’s no better time to learn than now.

Read and listen to the portraits of these seven leaders: Steve Russell · Carol Matthews · Stacey Burlet · Betsy Bassis · Susan Lea · Wayne Bowcock · Helen Bailey

Read the full Public Leaders Report: 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