Much of the literature on leadership is generic. It assumes that leadership is leadership whether the leader works in the private or public sector, a large or small organization, a turbulent or settled environment. The assumption is that the traits, skills, and behaviours needed in any organization are the same. In fact, there are some aspects of leadership that are generic, but there are many that are unique to particular types of organizations.
In my research on local government I became aware that there was a significant gap in the literature related to the leadership role of the municipal chief administrative officer. I was teaching mid-career and younger students some of whom wanted to become CAOs. When they asked me about literature they could read that would guide them in developing the skills they needed to fulfill their goal, I realized that I had to tell them that the literature in this field was quite sparse. I decided to do what I could do to fill this lacuna.
I also wanted to demystify the concept of leadership. There is an aura around leadership that suggests that only a few people are born with the ability to be good leaders; the rest of us must be content with being complacent followers. I wanted to identify the qualities that made certain CAOs successful leaders, and see if others could develop those qualities and so become successful leaders.
My journey started with the realization that the role of municipal CAO is unique even within the public sector because local government is quite different from the Westminster style of government. For example, public servants in Westminster systems work for a relatively united cabinet. Municipal CAOs take direction from a municipal council that could be so badly split that it constitutes nine, eleven, or even forty-five free agents. The CAO is the linkage between council and staff, so the CAO must provide staff with clear guidance on an issue even though council is not sending out clear signals.
Local governments are also more open and transparent than Westminster governments. When CAOs provide advice to council, they do so without the cloak of public service anonymity or cabinet secrecy. If the council and CAO disagree, that discord is out there publicly for everyone to see.
For these and other reasons, the CAO’s role is definitely different and probably more difficult than the role of public servants in the federal or provincial spheres.
My recent book on municipal CAOs is titled Leaders in the Shadows: The Leadership Qualities of Municipal Chief Administrative Officers. The title is deliberately contradictory to reflect the contradictory role of the people who star in the book. CAOs are expected to be strong leaders to guide their municipality at the same time that they are expected to work in the shadows while councillors take the credit for all the good things that the municipality does.
The book tells the story of five CAOs who have been identified by their peers as highly successful leaders. The main part of the book is five thick case studies of these leaders which describe their careers and how they handled a number of situations. I then use these case studies to identify the leadership qualities that these five exemplary leaders possess.
The traits, skills, and behaviours of successful municipal CAOs
Integrity. This is clearly the sine qua non of leadership. People in an organization want to take pride in their organization and the people they work with. They want to be confident that these people will do the right thing. It is difficult to hold your head up in the community when your organization and its leaders are the subject of ridicule or disdain. A person lacking in integrity cannot be a leader.
Respect. The leaders in my book were all respected by those they worked with. When I asked about why they received so much respect, a typical answer was that people respected these leaders because they showed respect to everyone around them. The democratic process produces some excellent councillors, some not so good. Good CAOs respect all councillors. Regardless of the personal qualities exhibited by the councillor, the office of councillor is deserving of respect. The successful CAO also recognized that every employee of the municipality from the lowest-paid custodial staff person to the highest-paid department head all played a role in the success of the municipality, and therefore were deserving of respect.
Communication is important; that includes listening. Leaders need to provide downward communication so that everyone in the organization is on the same page. However, it is equally important that leaders listen to followers. Good leadership is about mutual influential interactions. Leaders influence followers, but leaders must also listen to followers and allow themselves to be influenced by followers when that is appropriate.
Emotional intelligence. A good leader must be a perceptive judge of the people around her or him. This is one reason why listening and getting a good understanding of what motivates people is so important. Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability of people to express their own emotions and understand the emotions of others and use this information to sustain action. Good leaders must know the strengths and weaknesses of those around them.
Team building. Contemporary leaders build teams. Modern organizations are so large and complex that no one individual can truly control everything within the organization. Good leaders surround themselves with competent subordinates. However, it is not enough to assemble six or eight good individuals; a team is a group of individuals who work together for a common purpose. The good leader must both assemble capable people and mould those people into a real team, and then work every day to make sure that that solidarity holds.
Show your passion. Public servants are supposed to be bland and colourless creatures. We emphasize the importance of political neutrality in staying away from the political battles that are waged on the floor of council. However, this should not prevent leaders from being passionate about public service, about delivering good quality service to the public, about fairness and social justice. Staff members that we interviewed clearly enjoyed and were highly motivated by working for someone who showed her or his passion.
Leaders in the Shadows discusses a number of other leadership qualities and provides examples of how successful leaders displayed these qualities in their day-to-day activities. One of the purposes of the book was to demystify the concept of leadership. Successful leaders were successful because they developed certain qualities – integrity, respect, emotional intelligence – that are part of being a good leader. All of these qualities could be developed or learned by any reasonably intelligent person.
The book is addressed to those mid-career public servants in my classes who motivated me to write the book. All of them could develop the qualities described in this book and position themselves to become CAOs.
Leaders in the Shadows: The Leadership Qualities of Municipal Chief Administrative Officers is published by the Institute of Public Administration of Canada and the University of Toronto Press. The research and publication were supported financially by Brock University and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council.