Wanted: Public-sector leaders

By Ian C. Smith and John Swain
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/02/2002

Although the challenges and upheavals in the private sector have captured most of the headlines in the business news lately, the public sector has been quietly facing changes no less intense or dramatic.

Some of the challenges are familiar to private-sector companies, such as the need to increase operational efficiency, outsource non-core capabilities, and attract and develop future leadership talent. Others are specific to government, such as restructuring resulting from the amalgamation of jurisdictions or the transfer of responsibilities from one level of government to another.

Public-sector challenges require effective leadership at all levels. But before going out to beat the bushes for tomorrow’s leaders, the role of leaders in public-sector organizations requires examination and clarification.

Leadership can be learned

First of all, what is meant by “leadership?”

Leadership is a set of learnable activities associated with achieving particular, defined outcomes. Each individual leader brings a unique style and personality to these activities to achieve desired outcomes.

Some demonstrate leadership with extroverted enthusiasm and pep talks to large groups. Others require thoughtful reflection to make decisions, and communicate quietly but decisively. Still others operate in a seemingly casual way that unobtrusively builds consensus. The leadership styles are different, but the results are the same. Effective leadership training programs, then, focus on developing the skills that get the desired results.

The corollary is this: leadership is not one distinctive set of traits. If it were, it would be extremely difficult for would-be leaders to develop or mimic traits they did not naturally possess. And if it were, leadership development programs would be doomed to failure unless the participants already had the requisite traits.

So, what are the learnable activities in which leaders must excel? Effective leaders concentrate on four key areas: setting direction, mobilizing action, building capability and, most importantly, acting with courage.

Setting direction: Get out the roadmap

Job one for public-sector leaders is to establish and communicate a vision and strategy that cuts through the lack of clarity and incompleteness of public policy and the constant shifts in political direction. Public-sector employees need a clear, understandable destination and roadmap that will help them set priorities and co-ordinate their work. The familiar axiom, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there,” is particularly true in the public sector.

For leaders high up in the public service, setting a direction might mean creating a strategy; for those lower down in the organization, it usually means interpreting it in a meaningful way for staff. Part of this work is ensuring that difficult issues and challenges are identified and tackled, rather than avoided or ignored.

A large municipality in the Greater Toronto Area recently developed a vision and strategic plan. However, unlike many other municipalities before them, they did not stop there. They spelled out the implications for the community, and the municipality’s decision-making process, to the public and to staff. The leaders of the organization created a framework to ensure future decisions were consistent with the desired direction of the community.

Mobilizing action: Take the fence out from under the fence-sitters

Many public-sector organizations in the throes of change are hindered by employees who adopt a wait-and-see attitude. Such inertia is unhealthy for the organization and for the individuals involved. Effective public-sector leaders know the only way to deal with fence-sitters is to increase a boss’ individual attention to people.

Managers should ensure each employee has clear performance expectations and, more importantly, hold employees accountable for meeting expectations. All employees should be involved in making change happen. This high involvement environment means paying attention to coaching, feedback, team-building and recognition. Those who prefer to be bystanders have nowhere to stand as the rest of the group moves on, and are either swept along with everyone else or left behind.

A number of municipalities have put the focus in setting strategic direction on active engagement of all stakeholders, including the public, council members and staff. The leaders have recognized that ultimately successful implementation of the strategic plan will only happen if the key stakeholders are actively engaged in bringing about change.

Building capability: The next decade’s leaders

One of the more pressing challenges in the public sector is the shortage of future leadership and management talent to replace aging senior managers. For the last decade, many public-sector jurisdictions placed lower priority on developing new managerial leaders from within.

This situation has been exacerbated by a general perception that government work is not as attractive a career option as private-sector work. Let’s face it: government organizations are not perceived as exciting workplaces where one can pursue a challenging career path and acquire highly marketable skills.

The task for public-sector leaders is to invest time in helping others increase their professional and leadership capabilities, especially those who have the potential for future leadership. This means holding employees accountable for learning, acting as role models for personal development, providing coaching and feedback, and assigning work that offers developmental opportunities. It also means encouraging others to take risks by taking on new tasks and responsibilities.

There are numerous examples of public-sector leaders building capabilities among their staff — assigning leadership roles in managing key corporate initiatives, designating individuals as “spokespersons” in dealing with the public or political leaders, or giving certain employees the opportunity to become engaged in multi-jurisdictional initiatives.

Courage: Take a stand

Fundamental to leadership is the ability to act with courage. In the past, the public-sector environment has not been particularly conducive to this leadership activity. Yet the need for transformation is enormous as public-sector organizations seek to take bold, innovative action and strike out in new directions.

Leadership work in this regard involves challenging the status quo, identifying critical issues for debate and resolution, demonstrating tenacity and commitment to achieving results, and dealing with people in a straightforward and timely manner. Leaders must stand up for their beliefs and their staff, despite the criticism of groups with an opposite position or agenda.

Equally important is standing up for one’s values and convictions. As the saying goes, “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.” Effective public-sector leaders are not afraid to make a stand, even an unpopular one, if it will ultimately benefit the organization and the community.

This doesn’t mean sheer obstinacy and an unwillingness to listen to others. A leader must have good reason to believe, based on professional experience and careful analysis, that a position represents the public interest. And leaders must be prepared to change positions when they encounter solid evidence suggesting a different course would benefit the community. But when they have chosen a well-reasoned position, they must defend it, even when a special interest group decries it and the general public is silent. This takes true courage.

Seize the helm

They say, “Good sailors are made in rough waters.” If so, there has never been a more opportune time for developing effective leaders than in the public sector today, where the waters are choppy and the weather forecast uncertain. Leaders at all levels of government are called on to set a clear direction, mobilize action, build capability and act with courage. In fact, that is the true meaning of “public service.”

Ian C. Smith is a director of Johnston Smith International. He specializes in conducting operational and organizational reviews for private- and public-sector organizations. He may be reached at ismith@johnstonsmith.com or (416) 645-5308. John Swain is also a director of Johnston Smith International, an organizational effectiveness specialist and a leader of the Leadership and Learning practice. He may be reached at jswain@johnstonsmith.com or (416) 645-5311.

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