Creating adaptive leadership in Greater Manchester  

By David Jackson | 15 February 2021

Leadership is more than a job title. Senior colleagues may have the authority and resources, as well as the responsibility and accountability, but leadership lives at many levels, it doesn’t necessarily flow from the top down, it can work across people, teams and organisations.

Throughout our blog series highlighting learnings from Greater Manchester’s response to the pandemic, we have seen how local, informal leaders have stepped up to help their neighbours, setting up community hubs, linking with other leaders, working together to get the job done. 

We’ve also seen how unnecessary bureaucracy has been thrown out in favour of light-touch accountability, how hierarchies of control have been replaced with empowered local teams and how risk, for example around data sharing, has been owned across groups.

In our final blog, we look at how formal leaders - senior colleagues and elected members - can take this chance to reframe their own leadership and governance systems and processes, liberate more, new leadership from communities and frontline professionals, and ‘design forward differently’ so these innovations become the new ‘business as usual’.

To understand the opportunities for the future, IU and GMCA’s Public Service Reform Team worked with 100 people from public services and voluntary and community groups across the 10 authorities. We used storytelling for people to explain their contribution; we shared similar activity from elsewhere as a source of inspiration; and we asked people to identify what should be kept, amplified, discarded and created.

We identified six areas where GM’s rapid response has opened up new forms of leadership and governance for the benefit of communities. 

Firstly, the emergency response brought a unity of purpose that aligned and liberated informal leadership working across local places, cutting across hierarchies, professional affiliations and organisational boundaries. 

Secondly, people united and aligned around a strong shared humanitarian mission. Previously dormant leadership appeared everywhere, working across local systems. In Failsworth in Oldham, one resident’s offer of help placed on his social media led to more people offering help, then a Facebook page, followed by the council helping to shift piles of donations from the resident’s kitchen to a nearby church. Within a month, the group moved from supporting 12 to 130 people, with local businesses contributing food, and the team knocking on doors and phoning residents to find out who needed support. 

Thirdly, those in formal positions created conditions and permissions that increased everyone’s confidence to act.  

Then, groups and individuals without formal leadership roles stepped up to demonstrate skills, knowledge, connections and energy, and others willingly followed. Across the city-region, organisations like Action Together in Rochdale, Tameside and Oldham, took their usual work to another level, mobilising ecosystems of support.

At the same time, formal leaders became more visible, accessible and connected to each other and their teams. They were spoken of with new respect and regard. As one colleague said: “They have never been so visible, never more enabling, never closer to the frontline. Before, as frontline workers, we rarely even saw senior leaders.  Now we sit round virtual tables problem-solving with them.”

Finally, the need for rapid and participatory decision-making empowered people and places. This created prototypes for local governance, locally determined with risk and responsibility widely shared, leadership distributed and power and resources significantly devolved.

From these new ways of working, Greater Manchester has the chance to restructure leadership and governance:

  • preserve and enable the leadership which has emerged in the pandemic, under a new unifying purpose or mission
  • co-design plans to ‘design forward differently’ with the communities and their leaders
  • build recovery around place, not services or sectors
  • introduce lateral leadership to connect the local systems, utilising local leaders’ knowledge 
  • repositioning governance as a ‘custodian’ of mission and values, keeping the organisation sustainable and secure, setting boundaries only around what should not be undertaken rather than deciding what should. 

This is difficult work for brave leaders. It is service redesign and culture change and mission realignment, and it involves taking a wrecking-ball to old and defunct ways. It involves those in senior positions giving up control and giving away some of their power. It means adaptive leadership, enabling leadership, trust-based leadership.

The collegiate structure across Greater Manchester Combined Authority is a great place to start.

David Jackson is senior associate at Innovation Unit 

You can read the full report here and follow us on Twitter @Innovation_Unit for updates.

For more information on Innovation Unit’s work, please contact

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