Four Lessons for Leading in the Public Sector

February 10, 2014 Ren Wiebe

As an executive coach, I work with leaders across many sectors and industries. During the past 10 years, I've coached over 100 provincial and municipal leaders in different roles at all levels. What I've come to know is that leading in the public sector is in many ways more complex and challenging than leading in the private sector.

Leaders in the public sector must deal with the fact that their board (elected officials) and strategic direction can face wholesale change every three to five years. Then there’s the public scrutiny. Every decision and action of a public sector leader can end up on the front page of the newspaper.

Governance processes are weighty and complex – all making it more challenging to implement  decisions. And, while most decisions in the private sector can be focused around improving profit or shareholder value, decisions in the public sector must be filtered through a political lens and the implications for elected officials and their constituents.

It’s no wonder that some public sector leaders feel that they can only manage their mandate rather than truly leading! Yet, so many public sector leaders have inspired me by demonstrating real leadership in challenging circumstances.

Public sector leaders will be exploring the topic of leadership at the upcoming IPAC National Leadership Conference being held on February 13 – 14, 2014. My colleague, Dr. Vince Molinaro, will present his latest thinking about leadership from his New York Times-bestselling book, The Leadership Contract: The Fine Print to Becoming a Great Leader.

In his book, he outlines the four terms and conditions of the leadership contract including understanding that: leadership is a decision, entails an obligation, is difficult, and requires a community.

As a leadership coach, I've been reflecting on these terms and the public sector leaders that have inspired me. Four examples come to mind that demonstrate the behaviours Vince describes:

1.  Deciding to Lead

A regional director from a small northern Ontario city, just two years from retirement, decided to compete for an assistant deputy minister role at a very difficult time. Fiscal constraints required significant restructuring and massive personal commitment and resilience. He could easily have stayed in his more comfortable role, close to home, and worked out the final years of his career. Instead, he made the decision to step up and lead his organization.

Lesson learned: When you know what needs to be done and that you're the right person to do it, public sector leadership requires that you step up to the plate. 

The pay-off:  A lasting legacy and the satisfaction of having fulfilled your commitment to public service in a way not often available in the private sector.

2.  The Obligation to Lead

A newly hired director in one of the human services ministries quickly learned that she had stepped into a conflict-avoidant leadership culture. The union represented their members actively and the previous director had felt it easier to work around under-performer. The new director communicated her higher expectations clearly, had honest and respectful conversations with under-performers, took strong disciplinary actions when necessary, and made personnel decisions that required real courage. Within a year, the culture had changed to one of high performance AND high employee engagement.

Lesson learned:  The obligation to lead in the public sector often means battling against the status quo or prevailing culture. This requires courage and heart. 

The pay-off:  Taking on some heavy lifting can lead to transformative change.

3.  It's Not Always Easy

A senior manager in a central agency role saw that there was unhealthy conflict and real lack of alignment in his leadership team. He brought the team together to address the issues and had them hammer out a shared mandate for their leadership team. Then he got the unspoken issues and conflicts out on the table in a way that people felt safe to open up and talk.

Lesson learned: Doing the easy thing tends to make life harder. Doing the hard thing tends to make life easier. 

The pay-off: True team collaboration, a vibrant team mandate, and in this case, a high-performing team in just six months.

4.  You Can't Do It Alone

A director in a policy shop took it upon herself to build horizontal alliances across the Ontario Public Service. She challenged each of her managers to build a strategic partnership with another group for the sole purpose of sharing learnings and best practices that support transformation. Her team embraced the challenge and is now implementing innovation at a pace not seen before in the ministry. They are truly changing how services are delivered to the public and modelling this for other work units.

Lesson learned: Collaboration in the public service has the potential for dramatic impact. The more you reach out and share, the greater your impact can be.

The pay-off: Horizontal collaboration that can produce truly remarkable change and innovation. 

Some leaders (in every sector) choose the easy or self-centred path when confronted with complexity, challenge and risk. They are leaders in title but have not fully accepted the terms and conditions of leadership.

Despite the significant and unique challenges of leading in the public sector, I have seen many examples of true leadership from my coaching clients. They have stepped up to what it means to be a real leader. Their actions inspire their teams and others to follow their lead.

This is what is needed at a time when so many public sector organizations are striving to transform what they do and how they do it. The IPAC awards presented at the conference will surely reveal many more stories of great public sector leadership. I can’t wait!


About the Author

Ren Wiebe

Ren Wiebe is a Associate Consultant with Lee Hecht Harrison Knightsbridge Leadership Solutions. Prior to joining Lee Hecht Harrison Knightsbridge, Ren spent 7 years working in progressive finance roles in the real estate development sector, where he was responsible for managing public offerings of commercial properties. He managed teams and soon discovered his passion for developing people.

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