Conundrum: a hard or perplexing question; a riddle the answer to which involves a pun or play on words.
It’s about the conundri.
Conundri are what you have when you’re dealing with more than one conundrum. Which assuredly is the case when you tackle the ever challenging, ever present, ever (dare one say it aloud?) popular topic of leadership in the public sector.
Think about it:
- The public sector is an arena in which policy wonks prosper. And that’s as it should be – except that in the senior management ranks to which said prosperity leads, the premium is not on policy wonk-ism but on leadership, strategic planning, administrative oversight and similar niceties.
- Told to keep focused on the bottom line, public sector managers find themselves bedeviled most of the time not by tangible dollars and cents, but rather by the intangibles like accountability, openness and transparency.
- Senior managers are equipped with all manner of command and control tools, should they choose to deploy them. Increasingly, however, the folks who work for them are accustomed to the kinds of engagement and even empowerment afforded by cyberspace – and famously hostile to command and control.
- Every management textbook confirms that leadership calls for a strong measure of what George Bush (you know, the other one) belittled as “the vision thing.” In the public sector, however, much of the vision is the stuff of the political side – not bureaucrats.
- Leaders themselves appear uncertain in some respects as to their significance in the scheme of things. A 2004 survey of deputy ministers, by the widely respected Institute of Public Administration of Canada, gave training and leadership only a mid-level ranking, behind performance management, accountability and transparency and recruitment and retention.
And those conundri simmer on top of delicate questions like: Leadership of whom? Public servants? Canadians at large? And anyway – leadership toward what? And who decides that?
The alphabet soup of management programs (MBO, TQM, etc.) offers up a surfeit of suggestions to help answer these and countless other questions. And management portals abound on the web; one, www.12manage.com, has more than 400 methods, models and theories of management while another, at www.valuebasedmanagement.net has over 250.
To be sure, lots of governments and institutions have tackled all or most of these issues. The OECD, for example, says leadership is really about governance, which it defines as “the way in which the underlying values of a nation (usually articulated in some way in its constitution) are ‘institutionalized’.” That has the considerable benefit of situating public leaders at the heart of the operation.
It falls short, however, in two other respects:
1. The very word “leadership” is sometimes code for something else. When someone complains of a lack of leadership on some issue – and you may know that this is a regular occurrence in some jurisdictions – he or she may mean that there has been leadership, but with a result opposed by the complainant. It’s the nature of the beast in these trying times, perhaps, and it’s hardly a Tier I problem. But it hardly helps in attempting to measure the heft and weight of leadership in the management toolbox.
2. More critically, in fact definitively, public sector leadership today is exercised in nearly impossible conditions – a continuing collapse of the notion of community.
This last point is what makes much of management – and particularly leadership – so extraordinarily difficult. Most of the rules of the game were written in another context, a setting in which nation-building, for example, trumped everything. The new nation needed a national community; it made sense to put in place governance processes and structures in pursuit of that end. And we did, from national transportation policies to national health care programs and well beyond.
Now that “you” is officially the person of the year, according to Time Magazine, those notions of community are beginning to seem nearly quaint. It’s trite but true; the culture, and the society in general, are increasingly about individual expression, individual goals, individual stories. Community has hardly vanished, but it’s surely been redefined in an evolution aided enormously by the likes of MySpace, Usenet, YouTube.
For those in positions of public leadership, this only makes a tough job tougher. One of the building blocks of community, remember, is consensus; great leaders are gifted at identifying and giving expression to consensus nearly as a matter of routine (hello there, Sir Winston). Individual expression, à la MySpace and YouTube, undermines that consensus.
Nobody said it would be easy, to be sure. But…YouTube?