Public Sector Leadership, Not For Everyone

February 5, 2014 Vince Molinaro

Leading in Public Sector - blog pic

Is leading in the public sector different than leading in the private sector? 

You would be surprised how many times I get asked that question. So many times in fact, I will be tackling this question at two major public sector leadership conferences this month.

The simple answer is yes – a public sector leadership position is much different than what we expect in the private sector. To identify how and why they are different, I reached out to my colleague Ren Wiebe, a senior consultant in the Leadership Practice at Knightsbridge.

Ren is a superb executive coach with extensive experience working with public sector leaders. Over the last decade he’s coached over 100 leaders at all levels of government. This has provided him with many insights into the challenges that public sector leaders face.

The first point Ren made is that the public leadership mandate is not as clear-cut as is the private. Ren noted that private companies are, for the most part, driven to create and sustain profits. This creates a very clear and concise way of measuring leadership success.

In the public sector, leadership is much more complicated because of politics. “Priorities get influenced by political masters and therefore success isn’t always as tangible” he said. “The leaders I coach often feel like they are only managing mandates, rather than truly leading.”

One of the most fascinating observations Ren made was that public sector leaders are subject to more scrutiny than their private counterparts. Leaders of large private companies know everything they say and do is up for public debate. In the public sector, however, Ren said leaders struggle with the knowledge that any decision they make may put an elected official and his or her party directly in the media spotlight. “That means that public sector leaders actually devote a considerable amount of time trying to keep someone out of the media. This takes away from the time they need to lead their organizations.”

Given these pressures and demands, it makes you wonder why anyone would want to lead in the public sector.

Ren has acknowledged that with the complexity of the job, and the fact that public sector leaders make far less than those in the private sector, it’s not a career for everyone. However, he also said that most of the public sector leaders he’s worked with are genuinely motivated by things other than money and power.

“They share a true commitment to public service and in making a real difference in the lives of people they serve. Many also demonstrate tremendous courage and resolve to lead transformative change. Battling against the status quo isn’t easy, but they persist and get results.”

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About the Author

Vince Molinaro

Vince Molinaro is the Global Managing Director of Strategic Solutions at Lee Hecht Harrison. He is also the author of The Leadership Contract – a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. Vince has spent more than 20 years as an adviser to boards and senior executives looking to improve leadership in their organizations.

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