Although we may occasionally have feelings of schadenfreude when watching the ups and downs of other organisations, especially if they are our competitors, we should be charitable and limit our interest to gaining understanding for personal learning.

In that context, we can learn from the furore that followed a recent speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In making the opening contribution to a series of lectures on Islam and English law, Dr Rowan Williams certainly generated controversy. Six per cent of respondents to a YouGovStone survey said he should retract what he said and 14 per cent said he should resign. Although 29 per cent welcomed his views, 36 per cent said he was misguided.

Dr Williams himself is said to have been horrified by the reaction to his comments. He apologised for any "misleading choice of words" when he delivered his controversial speech but stood by his right to tackle such issues.

But how did Dr Williams get into this position? The Times' religious affairs correspondent Ruth Gledhill wrote that the Archbishop was advised before his speech that the content could prove controversial but that he rarely lets anyone amend his speeches.

Isolated leaders

Like it or not, we live in an age where pandering to populism is an essential component of media relations. Accepting this is important to all leaders of public services.

Attending the General Synod the week after delivering his controversial lecture, Dr Williams received a standing ovation. Such support will help restore his self-esteem, but this is rarely enough. It not the inner circle but other followers who need to understand and be convinced.

Raising controversial issues is the stuff of leadership, but leaders must take care not to isolate themselves by creating boundaries with their followers on one side and everyone else on the other.

In her book Bad Leadership, Barbara Kellerman gives numerous examples of leaders who have isolated themselves at one time or another. These include Lee Raymond, president of the Exxon Corporation, who argued against efforts to contain global warming; James Johnston, who staunchly defended the tobacco industry, appearing before Congress to testify that cigarettes were not addictive; and former US president Bill Clinton, who failed to intervene in Rwanda.

Public service leaders should not be afraid to enter controversial territory and should be applauded for doing so. While the risks are unlikely to be as great as the above examples, understanding the potential leadership consequences of generating controversy is essential to avoid damaging the reputation of an organisation or its leaders.

Called to account

This is important because NHS and other public service leaders are more likely to be called to account than at any time in the past. This mirrors the private sector: in 2002, nearly 100 chief executives of the world's 2,500 largest companies were replaced, almost four times the number in 1995.

There are numerous ways leaders can avoid becoming isolated. Limiting tenure, sharing power, not believing their own hype, and surrounding themselves with people with complementary experience and expertise are obvious requirements.

Perhaps less obvious lessons are to use independent advisers, maintain historical networks of trusted former colleagues, avoid groupthink, stay connected to stakeholders, and remember that it is poor leadership that creates poor followers. For leaders who are failing to get their message across, a bit of self-reflection may be called for.

If something does go wrong, apologising is more often than not the right thing to do. But perhaps above all else, no matter how experienced a leader is, they should always be prepared to seek out and take advice when entering controversial territory.