Many years ago when I entered the civil service in Danish central government, I attended a so-called strategy seminar with the management team of the department of business.
Coming from the private sector I was stunned when the managers questioned if they had any role to play in strategy making. "That’s the minister's job" they said to each other, and hardly engaged in the seminar. Comparing this to the heated and engaged conversations at my former workplace, the consultancy Ramboll, I realised there was a massive difference in how leadership was viewed.
In a skills-intensive and highly competitive sector like management consulting, attracting, retaining and developing talent was seen as absolutely crucial. Further, the strategic choices we made were easily assessed in terms of their success in the market – so feedback loops were fast and unmistakable.
The myth of the born leader
In the policy department, however, leadership was underappreciated. Part of the reason was that access to talent was taken for granted. The brightest young minds from economics, law and political science wanted to be close to power and gain experience in policy making. They were extremely self-motivated and prepared to work hard without much encouragement, stewardship or support from leaders; they played their part as if they were on autopilot.
And making strategic choices were not only perceived to be the job of politicians (although hundreds of essential decisions were of course taken daily by the civil service) – feedback loops that show whether choices worked or not, for instance in terms of enhancing citizen experiences or driving business innovation across society, were often long and sometimes non-existent.
This experience illustrates why good, ambitious and visionary leaders are rarely rewarded in public organisations. What gets recognised is “hard” professional and analytical skills, the ability to deliver predictable and robust material up the chain of command, and the willingness to put in hours needed. This is certainly the case at the top of the pyramid – and this culture tends to trickle down to lower levels. The key fallacy here is that it is somehow assumed that these traits must be a reflection of good leadership, while in fact they have very little to do with that.
Good leadership, simply defined, includes a powerful mixture of strong interpersonal skills, high individual integrity, and huge strategic bandwidth. These are not abilities anyone is born with; these are abilities that can be learned, honed and developed.
Good, ambitious and visionary leaders are rarely rewarded in public organisations
Most people in management positions probably think of themselves as good leaders. But are they able to articulate what that means? Could they reflect on how they develop their leadership abilities? Leadership becomes an unspoken, taken-for-granted aspect of management. And that’s really dangerous. Because if you do not actively seek to practice good leadership, how can you know you aren’t doing the opposite?
We need to invest
This vacuum is exacerbated by under-investment in leadership development in the public sector. For instance, there exists no international executive masters of public administration that are in the same league as the hundreds of MBAs on offer; schools of government around the world have been closed (as in the UK and Denmark) or are underutilised; a country like Singapore is the exception to the rule; public managers are often limited in their ability to travel to study and exchange with their peers internationally – personal development is often seen as frivolous.
Even when leadership gets recognised as a part of public service reform, policy makers don’t know how to support it. In Denmark, the minister for public sector innovation, Sofie Løhde, did attempt to place leadership at the heart of her public sector reform package, “the coherence reform”. A manifesto for good leadership was developed and shipped to tens of thousands of managers. But there was no investment to back it up, no changes in policy frameworks, and no real political engagement in the cause.
If you do not actively seek to practice good leadership, how can you know you aren’t doing the opposite?
Unleasing public leadership
When I recently conducted my Ph.D. thesis on the role of public managers using service design to drive innovation in government, I travelled to five different countries to explore the characteristics of managers who were successful in catalysing change. I found that they saw themselves as much more than decision-makers – rather as “future makers”. As I wrote recently in Harvard Business Review, these leaders were prepared to empathise with citizens to create momentum for change; they were open to bring other voices to create new ideas; and they insisted that to create more value for people and society they would also have to create a better and more meaningful workplace. Great leadership does exist in the public sector, it just needs to be unlocked.
How can we unleash more of such leadership? I suggest two approaches. Something you can do tomorrow – and something that’ll take years to build:
Tomorrow, start writing a personal leadership journal where you write down observations, thoughts and ideas about your own leadership practice. Use the journal as your personal development tool, starting a conversation with yourself.
Even when leadership gets recognised as a part of public service reform, policy makers don’t know how to support it
In the next few years, we should establish a global Executive Master of Public Leadership.
This would be an interdisciplinary, international platform for advanced leadership development, pooling the best research and faculty from around the world. It should teach leadership through hands-on problem solving on real-world cases, leveraging peer-to-peer learning, and it should be offered to political and administrative leaders alike from across international, national, regional and local government. Let’s start the conversation on how to make that happen.