Earlier this week the announcement that the British Labour politician Tessa Jowell had died, aged 70, after suffering from brain cancer, prompted a flood of public tributes. Politicians of all parties, Olympic athletes, friends and colleagues, described a committed and effective public servant, whose impact on British politics and culture was significant and lasting.
I heard of Baroness Jowell’s death listening to the breakfast news on BBC Radio 4. Amidst various clips of people saying how privileged they felt to have known her, a question posed by one of the presenters really stood out. He wondered: ‘Why do you think Tessa didn’t reach a higher position in Parliament? Do you think it was because she was a woman?’
I don’t recall to whom he posed this query. But I was struck by the interviewee’s dignified response. She told him that Tessa was ‘driven by purpose, not position.’
It feels old-fashioned, in an age where Donald Trump is President of the United States, to talk about politicians motivated by public service and higher purpose. What struck me even more in the exchange though, is how often we confuse power with status and authority.
Evidently Baroness Jowell was able to have great influence, and to implement successful change programmes, without needing to occupy the official role of ‘leader’ or have conferred upon her the formal power associated with that role.
It always seems to be the people in a system most connected to purpose, irrespective of their own position in the organisation, who successfully drive change and manage to take everyone with them. Connecting to purpose, above individual needs and drivers, gives us the courage to go beyond the constraints of our occupied role.
Consider what Tessa Jowell achieved during her time in office. She was one of only a handful of MPs to have served as a minister during the whole of both Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s premierships. Labour’s Sure Start programme, which she called her proudest achievement, led to the creation of 3,500 children’s centres across the country. She also oversaw the UK’s successful bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
One of the news guests described Jowell as a person with ‘deep empathy and compassion’. They said, ‘the way that she worked was collaboratively to empower others. Life is now better and fairer in our part of south London because Tessa put people first.’
This is the crux of systemic leadership. Modern organisations recognise that wisdom exists in every person, and strive to bring in all the voices of the system. The important role we hold as ORSC practitioners is to help reveal the system to itself and enable all its voices to be heard. As systems thinkers, we must bring awareness to the distinction between formal roles required for day to day functioning, and roles which support positive, productive relationships within and across the organisation.
May we all learn from the legacy of Baroness Jowell to be driven more by purpose.