Episode #2: Leading on the front line: Sir Mark Rowley in conversation with James Taylor

Talking Public Sector

In the second episode of Talking Public Sector, we discuss leadership in times of crisis, personal resilience and the importance of effective communication with Sir Mark Rowley.

Sir Mark is best known for leading the UK’s counter terrorism policing for four years during which his team prevented 27 terrorist plots and lead national responses to the five attacks in 2017. He joined the Met police as Assistant Commissioner in 2011 where he transformed approaches to gangs and public order, lead Scotland Yard’s combating of organised crime and ran major operations including policing for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Before that, he was Chief Constable of Surrey where he oversaw massive reductions in serious crimes and highest levels of public confidence in the country.

James is a London-based Partner and sector leader for Defence, Security & Justice in Europe. He started his career in the public sector before moving into consulting, initially with Accenture, before joining Deloitte in 2006.

During this episode, James and Sir Mark discuss the challenges of coping with the pressures of leadership, the importance of vision and effective communication.


James Taylor
Strategy Partner

James is a London-based Partner and sector leader for Defence, Security & Justice in Europe.

Read more


James Taylor (00:00:08): Hello everyone, my name is James Taylor and I lead Deloitte’s work with clients in Security and Justice. Welcome to our second podcast in the Talking Public Sector series. These podcasts feature some of the UK’s most celebrated public sector leaders, sharing their experiences and lessons in leadership. Today I am delighted to be joined by Sir Mark Rowley. Sir Mark is best known for leading the UK’s counter terrorism policing for four years during which his team prevented 27 terrorist plots and lead national responses to the five attacks in 2017. He joined the Met police as Assistant Commissioner in 2011 where he transformed approaches to gangs and public order, lead Scotland Yard’s combating of organised crime and ran major operations including policing for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Before that, he was Chief Constable of Surrey where he oversaw massive reductions in serious crimes and highest levels of public confidence in the country. Since retiring from the police in March last year Sir Mark has taken on a range of advisory and non-executive roles including, I am very pleased to say, working as a strategic advisor for Deloitte. And perhaps most importantly, he was knighted last year for his exceptional contribution to national security. Sir Mark, welcome to our podcast.

Sir Mark Rowley (00:01:22): James, thank you.

James Taylor (00:01:23): So let’s start by talking about your world view as a leader. You’ve spent 20 years in policing starting on the beat, as everyone does, and rising to national roles; throughout all of that what was your guiding vision?

Sir Mark Rowley (00:01:41): Thinking about this I suppose when I decided to join the police I had a moment when I was 17 looking through a forensic science leaflet where all of a sudden I thought – I’m going to join the police. I went to university and joined the police straight afterwards and I loved my career. I have something instinctive (then) in mind that it was worth doing – it was public service – I couldn’t articulate it. As I went through my career the things that settled in my mind were about safety and confidence. When I finally came across it, I was most inspired by what Robert Peel, the founder of modern policing said about – if anyone wants to look it up, it’s his nine principles of policing which were written by some combination of him and the first commissioners of the met police in 1829 and frankly, it’s better than anything that’s been written since. So all the strategists in Home Office and Policing over the last nearly 200 years haven’t been as good as him. And he captured policing being about – the primary mission not being enforcement but about the prevention of crime, that success in policing is the absence of crime and not the effectiveness in combating it, if that makes sense – the absence not enforcement of crime. Of course enforcement is part of the picture. But the other thing he really captured was about public trust and there is a sentence which sort of engraved on me which I used to use regularly in speeches which goes to the effect of “the police are the public and the public are the police. The police are simply members of the public paid to give full time attention to the duties incumbent upon every citizen.” For me, that is most inspiring sentence about policing that has ever been written captures the idea that at its heart, policing requires trust between the police and the public. It is not a paramilitary organisation. It is not an army of occupation. In an ideal situation, policing by consent is a relationship and the police doing things on behalf of everybody – but everyone has a duty to contribute to. So for me to stepping into leadership roles in Surrey and as a chief and as you say, leading the national policing environment in difficult times, it was always about that combination of “are we effective at protecting the public?” and “are we connected to the public and sustaining, growing, building that trust and confidence?” Because the two for me always go hand in hand. Technical success alone wasn’t enough. Does that make sense?

James Taylor (00:04:17): Yes absolutely. That’s powerful stuff. And I’m pleased to see that that particular principle that you flagged, I think is physically engraved outside the new Scotland Yard isn’t it? So I suspect you had something to do with that.

Sir Mark Rowley (00:04:29): Yes.

James Taylor (00:04:30): So you took on the national counter terrorism role in 2014 which was just at the time that the threat from ISIS had come into sharp focus and the UK faced an unprecedented threat level. Tell us a bit about that as a leadership challenge.

Sir Mark Rowley (00:04:45): In my career I have moved between local and specialist areas of policing and this was probably the biggest challenge I faced. The timing was personally difficult in as much as it was my second day in the role when Al Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, declared the Caliphate which is a fairly dramatic event for your first week in any job. And what we faced – and the British counter terrorism machinery is extraordinary and a lot of that is down to 50 years of wresting with different terrorist threats so police services have built an amazing infrastructure and I had the privilege of being one of the leaders in that for four years. But it was at a moment when the threat was transforming – it wasn’t just growing – it was becoming different and people saw the signs of that the way ISIS behaved publicly – inspiring people to do attacks, all the online propaganda, drawing in the vulnerable, different types of attacks, very low tech attacks with cars and knives and everything. So a very different methodology to what we have seen with Al Qaeda or the IRA. There were three things that we felt we had to contend with. One was just increasing volumes and increasing speeds giving that greater challenge – more investigations and more subjects to investigate and more threats to prevent. But because the nature of it was changing the way that policing machinery across the country – I mean I was responsible for a budget of £600-700 million and about 10,000 people scattered across policing across the country – the way that was coordinated and run, working with teams across the country, we knew that we had to transform how we did that to keep pace and ideally get ahead of the threat. And thirdly, if we have a growing threat and it’s more visible because of social media and those dynamics then it was clear to me that reaching out and connecting to the public was critical at that moment. So rather than taking a securocrat approach where we don’t talk about it so it can remain a secret, we connect to the public and explain what we’re wrestling with and seek their support. So it’s those three challenges: keeping up with the pace, transforming and trying to connect outside at the same time. I guess in other organisations you may see the same thing in terms of growing workload needs transforming and relations with stakeholders. But in that context, that was what I was worried about and it was a big challenge because of course, transformation in a situation where the engine is running flat out is hard. It’s easy to service a car in the garage, it’s quite hard to service it in the fast lane of the motorway. And that was how it felt. I think in terms of the transformation piece I always took the view that as the most senior leader responsible for something it’s your job to look towards the horizon. If you’re not looking to the horizon and thinking about the future and trying to drive the transformation then nobody else is. Most of the days the tactical activity would be dealt with for me by the people around me who did an amazing job. I also took a personal role in socialising the issues we are facing with the public and doing more interviews, more briefings and getting people on board. Because you could sense that the pace was growing – you were seeing the attacks around the world – we were obviously going to have really challenging times – the most challenging weeks came in 2017. But preparing for that was critical.

James Taylor (00:08:19): I guess that links back to your point earlier about policing with consent and role of the public and so on as well to an extent, doesn’t it?

Sir Mark Rowley (00:08:24): Exactly. I think in the security world people have often shied away from speaking about the situation. Of course there’s techniques and nuances that one wouldn’t share publicly but actually the broad thrust of what you are wrestling with and the challenges and the help the public can bring to that I think is critical.

James Taylor (00:08:41): You mentioned 2017 Mark and lets reflect on those terror attacks that you eluded to there and what they meant to you as a leader. We had the Westminster bridge attacks and the murder of PC (Police Constable) Keith Palmer. Then there was the Manchester Arena bombing, then the London bridge attack, then the Finsbury Park mosque attack and then a device exploded on a tube train at Parsons Green – that’s a horrific set of events. How did you approach them as a leader and did they change your approach at all?

Sir Mark Rowley (00:09:11): It was certainly the hardest year of my career and its ghastly isn’t it – 36 people died in those attacks. Of course I am there, part of the national machinery trying to lead us to have a perfect record – as you say we stopped 27 attacks in my four years. So you are trying to achieve a perfect record but you know a perfect record isn’t possible and sadly some attacks got through and people died in 2017. We’d been working very hard to prepare for those moments and obviously for any organisation thinking about crisis events in the future, there all sorts of technical preparations one can do to get the organisation’s capabilities, systems and processes right. So we did things like increasing the number of firearms at offices across the country (we got extra money from the government for that), changing our approach to working with the media (we did some table tops with journalists so we can understand how we both work in these situations). We did a whole range of things – we refined our command structures across the country. But I think those technical things are in some ways more obvious. If you are going to sustain yourself and your organisation and your reputation with the public through these moments, I think issues around values and teamwork and communication are equally important and perhaps can get lost in that. One of my reflections looking back on what we did was that the police service performed and dealt with those ghastly issues in such a way that when the inspector of Constabulary did a survey at the end of that year (2017) asking the public about their confidence in the police and their ability to deal with terrorism, after that ghastly year the public’s confidence went up dramatically which, if I am honest, I was surprised about. I felt my colleagues did an amazing job but I was still surprised about it. But I think that came down to the preparation and the work we had done but underneath that it’s not just the technical stuff but its values. So as an organisation having values that come out in the operations – everything from the front line officer in the compassion and the bravery they show through to how we worked as senior leaders and those of us that did media, hopefully we demonstrated our commitment to protecting and serving the public for a team under massive pressure. For my top team, it was a big big challenge clearly, we were running complex operations across the country at speed, we were supporting COBRA (Cabinet Office Briefing Room – A) meetings, we were commanding difficult operational challenges and so the trust and teamwork that we built up over previous years was critical and I was very lucky to have a fantastic team around me and we managed to keep ourselves on an even keel despite some difficult events. I think that communication with the public that we spoke about earlier, having spent the previous two or three years socialising with the public some of the challenges we are facing, myself personally being the national face of those responses doing all those briefings outside Scotland Yard, I felt it was part of a continuing public debate and presentation of the issues we were wrestling with and I wasn’t standing outside Scotland Yard as a fresh face, I was standing outside having already been briefing and talking to the journalists and the public about some of the things we were facing. I think that helped secure that continuing trust. The headline at the end of it was what police officers did across the country, extraordinary things which I say is as much about values and the ethos and the mission as it is about the technical skills. All of those things generated an improvement in public confidence which is startling given the ghastly things that happened that year.

James Taylor (00:13:17): You mentioned how 2017 was probably the most difficult year of your career. Can I ask you about personal resilience in that case? I mean some of those circumstances you eluded to must have been incredibly intense on a personal level and just as a senior public sector leader it strikes me that being a leader in the public sector is harder than ever. Its more complex – people are being asked to do more with less – the levels of scrutiny are so much more intense. How did you learn to cope with that pressure you were under?

Sir Mark Rowley (00:13:49): That is a really hard question isn’t it? I think if I am honest, until I had stepped out of policing, I don’t think I fully appreciated how much pressure I was carrying. I think as you go through bigger and bigger jobs in your career and you accumulate more responsibilities, only when you step out of that is that perhaps when it becomes clear. I did feel the responsibility and the pressure that anybody in that situation would feel. For me, I have always run and done exercise to keep myself fit and that may sound like a trite answer but actually the more pressure the more fast-moving things were the more determined I was to find a bit of time to go for a run and blow away the cobwebs and for me that was a sort of a rebooting time. I guess some people meditate and other sorts of things but for me running is the thing that does it for me and often it would clear my head and problems that seemed intractable, I’d get back and somehow in the back of my head they’d fall into place. The other thing, for me personally, I have to feel I was doing the right thing. For me and all the people around me, doing difficult stuff is achievable much more personally if you are satisfied that you’re doing the right thing. When making difficult decisions about operational deployments, I mean we requested twice during that year to the Prime Minister that we use the military in support for policing the streets which hadn’t happened before in that way. All these difficult decisions we were taking, for me it’s always about “is it the right thing?” and I try to connect that with my personal view. So I was being interviewed on TV about it, as a bit of thought experiment, and being challenged about something being an awful decision and “why on earth did you do that?” then for me if I would feel happy explaining why I did it in front of family and friends then I’m (OK) – my resilience comes from that rather than getting lost in technocratic language. Going back to that anchor or stake in the ground is important. So those two things for me – using your own values as a stake in the ground and doing something to help you recharge to however fast you’re running operationally – are what sustain me.

James Taylor (00:16:37): You’ve mentioned throughout this Mark the importance of communicating with the public. What’s the role of a leader in communications? I’m thinking particularly during a crisis.

Sir Mark Rowley (00:16:51): So I think that a crisis exposes your organisation that you’re responsible for, puts it naked in front of its stakeholders, its customers – the public, depending on the context you operate in; some of that – a lot of that is about the character of your organisation which is being stretched and challenged and, perhaps, has failed in an unexpected way. If you’re the leader of an organisation in that situation, I think you’re the one who has to be front and centre very early on – that may be public (or) that may be privately with key stakeholders, depending on the context you operate in. But it struck me looking at some of the big corporate reputation failures of the last few years – often one of the challenges afterwards is people recognise that the chief exec or the chief chair or whatever was too slow getting out there and before they had really demonstrated that they appreciated the significance of the issue, the crisis had grown and they were never able to get back on top of it and their reputation personally and corporately was undermined. There is a quote that I have picked up on the way that I thought is quite good on this – “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it, the tree is the real thing.” I think what that’s saying is the substance is critical and of course your substance is being completely exposed, any clothing stripped away, in a crisis. The leader is carrying the reputation in those situations and if the public see a leader who they think is credible and ethical, who’s running and heading an organisation that has tried its best but has stumbled and now have a plan to get back on their feet and, in my experience the public don’t expect perfection, if they feel they have not been persuaded that the organisation has tried to set itself up to prepare for predictable issues or that it recognises that it has stumbled and it’s trying its best to get back on its feet, then they will lose all confidence. The leaders’ grip on the issue and their public behaviour and representation is I think the most essential in that position. Too often I think leaders are nervous about going out there. I know the meetings where there is a corporate lawyer in there saying “you can’t out and say anything because you might increase the legal risk, you might sued”, the media people are saying it’s a bit difficult or stay away a bit longer and your instinct is let’s leave it longer and stand a bit more and of course the longer you leave it the more the story builds momentum and the more the public concern grows and then it’s too late. So I think the leader has to be ready to step forward and demonstrate that they understand the issues and they’re on top of them and that they care.

James Taylor (00:20:11): Is there any other advice you would give to someone moving into a leadership role for the first time or maybe looking to renew their impact as a leader?

Sir Mark Rowley (00:20:21): Just reflecting on some of the things that I’ve said, I think leadership is very personal and I don’t believe there is one leadership style that works for everybody. I have tried to illustrate what has worked for me. I do think that if you’re going to be a compelling leader then really being understanding and being excited about your organisation’s mission and your role within it – if you’re not personally excited about the mission, I don’t think you’re going to be successful as a leader, both technically and also in taking your people with you, because if you’re not excited about it then why on earth would they be? The mission is the most important thing. Secondly, it’s about having the reach of personality from that position where your stakeholders, the public, your staff, your colleagues, your organisation getting that collective buy-in that it’s a joint mission not just something came off the top of your head or came out of the strategy department. Because if you’re buying into it you have a shared sense of values and then an organisation would fly. That sounds very trite but that’s really all to do and to do that you need to have a diverse team with lots of different views that kick around, challenging different ideas – you need to face difficult issues with stakeholders and the public, but at the centre of it if you have a mission and values that you buy into then everything else can stand on top of that.

James Taylor (00:22:03): Sir Mark, this has been a really fascinating look at leadership. Its striking that you’ve operated as a leader in some pretty extreme circumstances but your observations on leadership are quite universal. Thank you Mark for sharing your insight today. Thank you for listening to the podcast and hope you’ll join us next time.


Did you find this useful?