Leadership in the public sector
The public sector is often adversely compared with the private
sector. Leadership is at the heart of organizational effectiveness and
employee engagement. The public and private sectors have traditionally
been regarded as very different. In recent years, however, they appear
to have been culturally closer to each other. However, there are
significant differences as well as similarities in leadership and
leadership development in public and private sectors.
Effective leadership helps our nation through times of peril. It
makes a business organization successful. The effective leadership of
parents enables to children to grow healthy and become productive
adults. Leadership is crucial in implementing decisions successfully. A
good leader can make a success of weak business plan, but that a poor
leader can ruin even the best plan.
Effective leadership is integral to organizational effectiveness.
Effective leaders create positive organizational cultures, strengthen
motivation, clarify mission and organizational objectives, and steer
organizations to more productive and high performing outcomes. Recent
evidence of the importance of leadership and its absences or limited
presence in some public organizations is plentiful. Without leadership,
organizations move too slowly, stagnate, and loss their way.
Public sector, a major contributor to national economy
Effective leadership is one key element in the success of a group and
virtually anyone can learn to be an effective leader. Leaders are made,
not born. In most organizations, we find managers not leaders. It is
very rare to find effective leaders in the public organizations. Good
group leaders make an effort to learn and practice skills so they can:
listen openly to others: offer and accept constructive suggestions: give
clear directions: set and meet deadlines: give formal and informal
presentations: help members identify and solve problems: set an example
of desired behaviour: show appreciation of others’ contributions: show
understanding: encourage members to exchange ideas: handle conflict:
guide the group in goal setting and decision making: delegate
responsibilities: ask questions of the group to prompt responses: create
a productive atmosphere.
Effective leaders will identify productive areas of confusion and
uncertainty that exist in society, will demonstrate that they do not
have all the answers but are willing to learn, and will be able to “act
differently, think differently, and seek inspiration from different
sources” than leader of past.
Good leaders develop through a never ending process of self study,
education, training, and experience. Leadership is a process by which
one person influences the thoughts, attitudes, and behaviours of others.
Leaders are not only responsible exhibiting ethical behaviour rather
they are responsible for generating ethical climate in the organization.
Effective leadership is also based on sustainable and continuous
development. Sustainable communities and businesses depend on the
principles of sustainable development being applied by committed people
on a continuing basis. Real progress towards sustainable development
depends on the willingness of the people at every level to both give and
accept effective leaders.
The concern for finding and keeping effective leaders is a priority
not only for the public sector but for the private sector as well.
Exercising leadership in public sector organizations, however, is
different from leading private organizations. One of the most
significant is the bifurcated administrative model created by placing
elected and appointed officials, as well as senior leaders from the
career bureaucracy at the top level of many public organizations. Split
leadership, combined with democratic accountability, oversight
procedures and intense media attention, creates an environment for
public sector leaders that is constrained in many complex ways.
There are also common dilemmas. One of these is 'growing' verses
'buying' leaders. Organizations often look outside for the incorporation
of new ideas, relevant leadership experience, and fresh approaches:-
they seek to 'buy' leaders. In contrast, a growing leaders’ perspective
involves developing the skills and range of experience of organization's
employees over time, promoting individuals to positions of ever
increasing responsibility and skills, and eventually to leadership
Leadership development activities in all sectors
demonstrate one fundamental point:
There is not a 'best way' to develop leaders that is applicable to
all organizational settings. There are of course trends. Recent trends
in the private sector include 360 degree feedback from supervisors,
peers, and subordinates: distance learning programmes, off-site training
programmes, and temporary rotational work assignments. Most of these are
found in public sector activities as well, with no clear pattern of
Leader attraction, development and retention efforts are changing in
public and private sectors. Heroic, charismatic, solitary leadership,
although still important for some organizations and for some kinds of
organizational action, is being replaced by a more team-oriented style
and perspective. Although advocated for some time in theory and popular
leadership literature, the reality of creating team-based leadership in
a still hierarchical and rigid organization is a challenging one.
Entrepreneurial leadership models are also beginning to mark the
public sector. Entrepreneurial leaders have a strong motivation to 'make
the difference' and work to do so with determination and optimism. These
individuals look for opportunities to forge their own direction, despite
strong central organizational control. Forging their own way impels
these individuals to connect with broader political and social trends.
Traditional leadership theories focused mainly on rational process.
But theories of transformational and charismatic leadership emphasize
emotions and values and imply that leader and followers raise one
another to higher levels of morality and motivation. Transformational
leaders have been described as broadening and elevating the interest of
followers, generating awareness and acceptance among followers, and
motivating followers to go beyond self interest for the good of the
groups. Transformational leadership has been contrasted with
transactional behaviour, in which co-operation is obtained by
establishing exchange of rewards. Transactional leaders motivate
subordinates to perform as expected.
Charismatic leadership in the public sector is perceived in terms of
vision, risk taking, challenge and encouragement and determination. But
charismatic leadership overall is not strongly related to consequential
motivation and not significantly related to operating performance.
However, motivation was found to be predicted by risk taking, challenge
and encouragement by the leader, which engaged higher self-esteem in
subordinates. Risk taking, however, may be discouraged or avoided in the
Baldwin (1987) noted three major differences between public and
private sector organizations: (a) private sector goals are less
ambiguous than those in the public sector because they can be evaluated
in terms of economic outcomes and because public sector leaders have to
pursue multiple goals simultaneously: (b) there is more leadership
turnover in public than in private organizations, not only because of
the limitations on time in office but also because administrative
upheavals of ten lead to officials’ resigning voluntarily: and (c)
public employees enjoy greater job security because of the existence of
extensive grievance procedures.
Other differences that have been explored between the two sectors
suggest that public sector organizations, tend to focus more on
seniority in their reward systems; have less flexibility in their reward
systems; have to comply with the civil service system; have more
specialized and invariant job designs; and have stricter reporting
relationships, higher level accountability, more rules, more
regulations, more constraints, weaker linkages between political leaders
and career level leaders, and an absence of market incentives.
Managers in the private sector demonstrated higher levels of
competence of conceptualization, oral presentations, concern for impact,
diagnostic use of concepts, efficiency orientation and proactively. The
public sector managers more concern for relationships than their private
In the public sector, in contrast to the private sector, rewards were
not distributed on the basis of performance, and fewer policies existed
that promoted efficiency. Career level leaders in the public sector do
not have control over rewards, and goals are determined by political
leaders, rules, and regulations. This takes away leader discretion, make
it more difficult to direct and motivate employees, and leads to
frustration with the system.
Whereas both public and private sectors are subject to various
regulations, in the public sector these regulations tend to be more
pervasive and prescriptive. Because public sector managers have to deal
with frequently changing agendas and unstable coalitions, managing
conflict and getting people to work together becomes a critical skill.
Rules also provide public managers with power because they can let
subordinates break the rules as rewards or enforce the rules as
punishment. Effective leaders understand that up to one extent only
punishment can be tool of behaviour correction. After one limit,
punishment tends to increase employee dissatisfaction.
Career-level leaders in the public sector must minimize discontinuity
but they must also maintain both flexibility and adaptability to
emergent strategies and other exogenous influences in an environment
where political leaders and agendas change so frequently.
In addition, given the volatility of the political environment,
career-level leaders need to work hard at influencing their leaders to
influence policy directives and demands.
Leaders in the private sector also must show flexibility and
adaptability in handling market forces and need to know how to obtain
the necessary financial and non-financial resources from their bosses so
they can produce. Leaders in both sectors, then, need to show
adaptability and exert upward influence, albeit for different reasons.
The public sector needs to get serious about leadership. Leadership
acquisition and development requires a thoughtful strategy, careful
candidate selection, appropriate reward, attentive mentoring, and an
ongoing and sustained commitment from potential leaders and their
respective organizations. Developing and sustaining effective leaders
for government organizations of the 21st century is clearly fundamental.
The writer is the Deputy General Manager (Internal Audit),
Employees Trust Fund Board