Leadership in the public sector

Every month, a group of city managers meets up to share their experiences running a municipal organisation. The highest ranking public officials in their organisations, they are top managers who act under the political guidance of their Municipal Executives.

They invited me to talk about communication and leadership. In my presentation I explained the differences between a manager and a leader profile. Managers are good at managing complexity and getting things done through planning and organising. Leaders are good at initiating change and gathering people behind a joint ambition. And because only a few people are good at combining these skills, you need both managers and leaders.

Manager or leader?
I asked my audience how they saw themselves: as leaders or managers. Funnily, most people in charge see themselves as a leader rather than a manager. And this group was no different. The discussion gave me an interesting look into the challenges of leadership in a political environment. And I came to the conclusion that it is a real challenge to be an effective leader in these types of organisations.

After all, leadership requires you to use your personal ambitions and convictions as the basis for setting clear priorities to which you stick over a longer period of time. Leadership is about having the guts to really shake things up now and then, but also to take a stand for your organisation and your people if the going gets tough.

Political suicide
In a public environment these aspects take on their own dynamics. As the highest ranking public official you may be responsible for the organisation but you are not the only one at the helm. Politics direct, you execute. What makes politics so unique is that people can reach agreement on things that are entirely unrealistic or contradictory. Politics may decide to take a left turn today, and a right one next week. No one blinks an eye when politicians set new priorities every day. It all depends on what moves society at that point.

And there you are – heading a public sector organisation. Your staff expects you to know what you want, that you map out an inspiring course and steer a straight line. That you take a stand for your organisation, converting unrealistic expectations into realistic goals and plans. Not so. According to the city managers, taking too firm a stand for the organisation is political suicide. You sometimes need to step aside and accept political forces, including the ambiguity this brings for your organisation. And in the mean time hope for inspiring and consistent leadership at the political level. Unfortunately, this is a rare skill in aldermen and ministers.

Michiel van Delden is managing partner at C-Suite Leadership Communication.

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