Leadership in the Public Sector – What’s lurking beneath

Over the past several years I have worked with executives across the Public Sector (PS) as an executive coach supporting leadership practices through coaching. Canada’s PS leaders are working extraordinarily hard, they are loyal and committed and they are struggling.

When I compiled 360 feedback on more than 100 leaders I have met over the past two years, the aggregate profile suggests a leadership group that is reasonably strong at first glance.  Strengths include demonstrated values around engaging, developing and mentoring people as well as strong awareness of and commitment to whole system improvement and community welfare. The PS leaders I’ve met are paying attention to staff development with a strong sense of systems awareness and focus on community concern and sustainable solutions.

I also notice that the biggest common challenge is around a willingness to be open to “not knowing”, to personal learning, as well as the willingness to address the “unmentionables” and challenge senior leadership thinking. 360 feedback also indicates that leaders are not seen to be walking their talk, achieving results or making decisions as effectively as they could.

However, when I look closely into the individual experiences within the larger group; the reality of what is going on under the surface is more complicated and three distinct groups emerge:

  • 1/3 of these leaders are getting it done and feeling good about it
  • 1/3 are getting it done but at a great cost to their mental and physical health
  • 1/3 are not getting it done and struggling for a variety of reasons personal/organizational

What you see at first glance is not reflective of the whole story.  The overall appearance of general strength actually masks underlying challenges that are impacting leaders today.

At a personal leadership level, several issues are getting in the way of PS leaders being able to be the most effective versions of themselves. Some of these factors include:

  • A tendency to comply – to be passive through fear of rocking the boat
  • A tendency to criticize or disengage from difficult conversations
  • Gaps between how leaders see themselves compared to their staff (suggesting some lack of awareness as to how they are leading)
  • Insecurity and self-doubt about what it means to be a senior leader in the public sector
  • An absence of work life balance (working over 50 hours/week)

PS leaders are finding it challenging to lead and create the conditions that allow them to succeed. They need to be enabled to challenge status quo, lead with confidence and create a healthy work/life balance. And while new individual leadership practices can certainly be adopted, if the system in which they are practiced does not change, it all becomes a moot point. So, two things have to happen: leaders need to shift their leadership practices and behaviours to align with the changes they are seeking and leadership at the top needs to support it.

Leadership practices that shape institutions and organizations are a product of the culture that shaped them. History includes a story line that evolves leadership behaviour in positive and less positive ways. Over the past 25 years working with leaders across the PS, they have revealed the following challenges:

  • A hierarchical/political system that continues to manage top-down and is more autocratic than democratic
  • A system where bullies have been tolerated and even promoted because they can deliver, regardless of the impact on their employees (getting it done being more important than how it gets done)
  • A history of not having the difficult discussions – you move the problem rather than address it
  • Job security/pensioned environment that creates: loyal and life-long employees, difficult employees that get moved not removed and leaders that become compliant vs risking pushing back
  • A history of not making conscious leadership and personal awareness a priority for emerging and developing leaders

What needs to be supported and changed is:

  • Leaders need to get clear and confident around the leadership practices, values, and behaviours that reflect how they personally want to lead and the impact they want to have
  • Individual leaders need to learn to support one another, build a collective voice for change and commit to practices for looking after their mental and physical health
  • PS leaders need to be more fearless in their thinking and have the conversations that invoke change
  • Senior leadership needs to engage and enable the next generation of leadership to create change
  • A commitment to self-awareness and conscious leadership for emerging and senior leaders needs to be made. This means making this a priority and making time and resources available for it

Fundamentally the model for leadership in the PS has to change. Many of the concerns I hear today are concerns I heard years ago.  The commitment to changing leadership and culture towards: a more collaborative and inclusive, less autocratic, and siloed approach where risk is embraced, bullying is not tolerated, and work/life balance is a core value, needs to be way of the future. Change takes time and progress can be slow however the commitment and focus cannot be lost. The only way that this kind of breakthrough will become a reality is when the top of the house owns the need for it and becomes willing to embrace different values and empower the next generation of senior leaders to create it. Equally important is that the leaders of today be willing to step in to leading the change they want to see.

Why is this so critical?  The PS has a current leadership cohort that is impacted by the consequences of culture as demonstrated by continued increases in mental and physical health concerns and the human cost that brings is alarming. We also have a moral responsibility to our next generations of leaders and youth who want to see change. Without change we risk PS organizations and institutions that are outdated and not reflective of leadership models and best practices of the 21st century. It is my opinion that the PS then risks losing its ability to attract the talent that Canadians’ deserve. We all have a responsibility to speak to the improvements that can be made and the change that is needed and it is why I write this article. Otherwise, as a collective, we become responsible for accepting less than great knowing we deserve more.

I hope by sharing the conversation continues and builds!

Jennifer MacLeod M.ED., PCC jmacleod.in@gmail.com 613 552 6657