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Take me to your (normative) leader

November 23, 2012 by
Filed under: Uncategorized 

I am grateful – not for the first time – to Keith Grint for alerting me to a distinction made by Amitai Etzioni in 1964 in his book ‘Modern Organisations’:

Etzioni distinguished between Coercive, Calculative and Normative Compliance. Coercive or physical power was related to total institutions, such as prisons or armies; Calculative Compliance was related to ‘rational’ institutions, such as companies; and Normative Compliance was related to institutions or organizations based on shared values, such as clubs and professional societies. This compliance typology fits well with the typology of problems: Critical Problems are often associated with Coercive Compliance; Tame Problems are associated with Calculative Compliance and Wicked Problems are associated with Normative Compliance. 

As regular readers of this blog (lovely to see you the other night, mum) will know, I think that more and more policy problems are ‘wicked’ by which I mean they are complex, intractable in the sense that they can be managed but probably not solved, contested both in terms of diagnosis and prescription, and – crucially – solutions involve changes not just in policy and processes but changes in social expectations, norms and behaviours.  The latter point links wickedness to the ‘social aspiration gap’ (which I have argued separates our collective hopes for the future from the trajectory upon which current modes of thought and action set us) and to ‘social productivity’ the idea at the heart of our 2020 Public Services Commission report that public services should be judged by their capacity to help people meet their own needs.

I have decided to try to delve deeper into this question of normative leadership; why do we need it, what exactly is it, what are the best examples of it in practice, what are the factors which build it and inhibit it?

Last week, following a tip-off from Caroline Haynes at KPMG, I gave the example of transformative normative leadership provided by the fat-busting Mayor of Oklahoma – if you didn’t follow this link you really should, it’s a great story. My thinking is at an early stage but the working definition of successful normative leadership is ‘the achievement by those in authority of enduring and benign change in social norms, which may involve, but does not primary rely upon, regulatory compulsion or financial inducement’.

Keith Grint differentiates this type of leadership through three dichotomies: questions not answers, relationships not structures, reflection not reaction. This is a good starting point but I want to suggest other dimensions such as a focus on substantive mission not procedural means, a willingness to accept the risk of public failure, leadership y through exemplary action not mere exhortation.

My weekend request to readers is for more examples of normative leadership. It need not be mayors, or even politicians. It could be a head teacher, a social entrepreneur or a community organiser. But it is someone who successfully took it upon themselves to persuade people voluntarily to change their habits for the good of society.

This is the leadership we need right now. It is not the kind being offered by conventional leaders but rather than blame them, I am looking through this project to inspire them to believe it is worth trying to be braver and more ambitious.

And as it’s Friday, here is an old joke from the Soviet era to exemplify the failure of normative leadership:

Worried about the stirrings of revolt in the Gdansk shipyards, Soviet Premier Andropov takes Polish Premier General Jaruzelski on a walk in Moscow. He stops a young boy and asks:

‘Tell me, young comrade, who is your mother?

‘My mother is this great Communist nation, mother to all Soviet children’ replied the boy.

‘And who is your father?’ asks Andropov.

‘Why, that is Comrade Andropov the elder and father to the nation’.

‘And’ says Andropov ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’

‘My ambition is to be a cosmonaut’ says the boy.

‘You see’ says Andropov to a chastened Jaruzelski, ‘this is the ideological rigour you must instil’.

Back in Poland,  Jaruzelski goes on a great propaganda drive in school, on the media and through every organ of the Party.

A few months later comes the return visit and the two leaders are out walking in Warsaw.  General Jaruzelski stops a child.

‘Tell me, young comrade, who is your mother?’

‘My mother’ replied the boy ‘is the Communist state, mother to all Polish youth.’

‘And tell me,’ says Jaruzelski ‘who is your father?’

‘Why my father is General Jaruzelski,  father to all Poland’.

‘And finally’, says Jaruzelski, turning to Andropov with a complacent smile ‘what would you like to be when you grow up?’

‘Oh’ says the boy ‘that’s easy – an orphan’.



  • Ian Christie

    Very good, and it has to be said that just about the only high-quality product of the Soviet bloc 1945-90 was the black humour about actually existing socialism. But in fact the absolute lack of credible normative leadership from political bosses in the USSR and E Europe generated some astoundingly brave and inspirational leadership and moral exemplars in civil society. Many of the church leaders and dissidents of E Europe displayed the qualities Matthew is seeking.

    Other cases of normative leadership of great depth and inspirational quality:
    – Jaime Lerner, mayor of Curitiba, southern Brazil
    – Desmond Tutu and the Truth&Reconciliation process in S Africa
    – Archbishop Derek Worlock and Bishop David Shepherd in Liverpool, 1980s and 90s (Shepherd was the greatest archbishop of Canterbury we never had – the C of E would be in far better shape had he not been blocked by Thatcher)
    – Lord Andrew Mawson and the Bromley-by-Bow project, E London
    – Wangari Maathai and Green / social justice movement in Kenya

  • Tom Ritchey

    Excellent article. Re: Wicked Problems, you might like to know about this recent publication:

    “Wicked Problems – Social Messes: Decision support Modelling with Morphological Analysis”. Springer, 2011.

    You can see a description at:


    Tom Ritchey

  • Robert Burns


    very interesting, very amusing, but not very helpful.

    The Eastern European dissidents, etc. that you cite only enjoyed success with the public while they were the focus for protest against the economic and cultural failings of communism.

    It is worth noting that the successors to communism have not delivered anything actually better.

    Further, many of the people who ran things (anything important, that is) under communism continued to run them under ‘capitalism’.

    Changing to capitalism has not solved the systemic economic, social and political problems of the former USSR and Eastern Europe.

    The ‘success’ of post WW2 western capitalism was entirely the outcome of bribery of the masses in the face of ideological fear.

    The mantra that capitalism is indivisibly associated with ‘freedom’ has been proved a lie in the post USSR world.

    Indeed, I have a ‘joke’ for you – by the way this is a true story related to me by the lady in question (I’ll call her Mrs Smith).

    Mrs Smith and I used to be acquainted at a time when she used to foster the children of West African students visiting the UK.

    On one visit to their children the Nigerian parents announced that they were in fact senior members of the Nigerian Royal family present in the UK in cognito to finish their studies.

    The two children (Ade and Buki) were both enrolled at the local junior school and armed with this ‘royal news’ Mrs Smith promptly arranged an interview with the Headmaster.

    At the interview Mrs Smith announced the royal credentials of Ade and Buki and demanded that henceforth they were to be referred to as ‘Prince Ade’ and ‘Princess Buki’ at registration and during lessons.

    It should come as no surprise that the Headmaster refused to comply and a contest of wills ensued.

    Mrs Smith refused to leave the office until the Headmaster agreed to her request.

    Not wishing to resort to force the Headmaster tried reason and it went like this:

    Headmaster: ‘So, Mrs Smith, how do you know Ade is a prince’

    Mrs Smith: ‘Well, because his mother is the queen’

    Headmaster: ‘And how do you know she’s a queen?’

    Mrs Smith: ‘Because her husband is the king’

    Headmaster: ‘And how do you know he’s a king?’

    Mrs Smith: ‘Well, of course he’s a king because Ade’s a prince’

    Mrs Smith was escorted out of the school by two Caretakers.

    Mrs Smith finished her account of this incident with the comment:

    ‘I don’t know how that bloke got to be a headmaster, he just didn’t get. He must be thick.’

    Problem is, this brand of perverse, self-interested logic is far more commonplace than most people are comfortable with and drives much of the ‘thinking’ of politicians, civil servants, journalists, pundits and the chattering classes.

    No wonder we face a leadership crisis.

  • Julian Dobson

    I would say this, but I do think Pam Warhurst, Mary Clear and their co-workers at Incredible Edible Todmorden are showing normative leadership. If the test is behaviour change, it’s starting to happen there.

  • Robert Burns


    could you provide a little more explanatory detail please.

  • Julian Dobson

    Sorry Robert – see this on the RSA Fellowship site:

    or listen to Pam Warhurst’s Ted talk:

  • Carl Allen

    ‘And finally’, says Jaruzelski, turning to Andropov with a complacent smile ‘what would you like to be when you grow up?’

    ‘Oh’ says the boy ‘that’s easy – an orphan’.

    Is Matthew reflecting an increasingly informed view held by the young across all differences in England?