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Sir Brendan Barber: Let's talk about true leaders

Thursday 14 February 2019

Acas Chair, Sir Brendan Barber talks about leadership and building the right workplace culture.

Acas Chair Brendan Barber blog Sir Brendan Barber

Sir Brendan Barber is Acas' Chair, joining in January 2014. Previously Sir Brendan was the TUC General Secretary (2003 to 2012) and sat on the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service Council (1995 to 2004). Sir Brendan was knighted in the 2013 Birthday Honours for services to employment relations.

I want to talk about Leadership. But first I want to get beyond the way everyone traditionally thinks about leaders. So there will be nothing (directly) from me on Brexit, Premiership football managers or high-profile politicians around the world.

I want to talk about managers and leaders inside workplaces, at all levels of the organisation and the part they play in building the right kind of workplace culture. But before I do, I think we need to address some home truths:

  1. Senior managers get paid more than their employees, largely because they have a greater responsibility for leading the business. Telling junior managers that 'we are all leaders' may resonate and feel empowering, but does it  reflect the way the business is run?
  2. Although first line managers effectively represent the front line of employment relations - which the notable shift over recent decades from a collective to individualist focus - the scope they have in reality to affect institutional change can be limited.
  3. Current leadership styles and cultures cast a long shadow. The fact that sexual harassment and bullying seem rife in many workplaces, for example, means that managers at all levels are being asked to address the legacies created by previous generations.  

So is it fair to say to the 'rank and file' that we need them to take collective responsibility for workplace behaviour, productivity and engagement levels and effective change management? And does the mantra of 'we are all leaders' bear relation to reality?

Distributive leadership

To answer that question, let's first look at the possible advantages of a more distributive form of leadership.

Firstly, we shouldn't underestimate the value of recognising the job people do, not just in terms of the nuts and bolts but the wider impact they can have as role models. Research carried out among 1,400 members of the Institute of Leadership and Management has found that 34% of workers are likely to change their job this year, citing poor relationships, feeling undervalued and not being challenged enough. A long hard look at job quality and line manager capability would be a good start.

Second, empowering leaders at all levels is good for organisational accountability and transparency. I have advocated in previous blogs for greater worker representation at senior level. I was pleased to see that although the 'workers on boards' agenda didn't meet all the early promises, progress has been made on recognising a more inclusive style of management when it comes to decision-making. The UK Corporate Governance Code challenges company directors to demonstrate how the interests of the workforce and other stakeholders have been taken into account in their decision making.  This means more listening up and down the chains of command.

Thirdly, fairness. Let's just take a look at the issue of mental health. The government has pledged to create parity between physical and mental health. Yet in a recent Acas poll, only 43% of workers felt that their employer would treat mental and physical health equally in the coming year. Many of the organisations that Acas have worked with who have been successful in fighting stigma and promoting positive mental health have appointed 'champions' to carry the banner for more enlightened views. These don't have to be senior people, although it helps, of course, if they get support from the top. As with many aspects of working life, personal testimony is a very powerful tool. In this respect, you can be a real leader at any level. And this is to be encouraged.

And finally, the future of work. We hear much of innovation, technological change, the advance of AI and the march of the robots. All good stuff and indeed our recent YouGov poll found that many workers identified 'technological change' as one of the biggest issues facing their workplace (36%). But it would too easy for the future of work to become distorted by the excitement of technological change. Algorithms can change the way we manage, for example with recruitment and promotion, but people, managers and leaders, will still be needed to articulate direction and handle day to day relations. Henry Kissinger made an interesting observation in his recent book, 'How the Enlightenment Ends', when he said that unless we can find a way to clearly program human ethics into AI, then AI will have no moral compass to guide it.

So who is responsible for this 'moral compass' and what it should cover? I think it is a shared agenda and one that should have input from employees, managers and leaders at all levels using the right voice channels.

The Acas take on leadership

Acas' historic role may reflect a traditional view of Leadership: intervening to addressing disputes between unions and senior management representatives.  Our intervention in collective disputes remains an important role for Acas, but the world of work has changed and Acas has an equally important role in working with managers and their staff promoting positive mental health, encouraging flexible working and preventing conflict arising in the first place. So we see leaders at all levels.

Please view our guidance on Leadership.

The Acas Framework for Effective Leadership is split into four key components:

  1. the big workplaces issues, namely absence, discipline and grievances, performance and health and wellbeing
  2. communication skills, such as engaging, liaising, influencing and negotiating
  3. culture, based around fairness, integrity and compassion
  4. personal style, that reflects mutual trust, personal vision and emotional intelligence.


We believe, and our experience tells us, that leaders at all levels of an organisation need these four elements to be successful. Of course, the emphasis will vary, with junior managers often focussing on the nuts and bolts of day-to-day management, and more senior managers relying on personal style to convey their vision.

Giving people a voice, empowering them and letting them shape workplace cultures is a way of changing current mind-sets and helping develop confidence and a deeper sense of meaning and purpose about work.

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