Much of the current leadership and human resource literature focuses on outlining core leadership “competencies,” but empirical research shows that knowledge and values are also essential pillars of effective public sector leadership. This article will focus on defining the roles of organizational leaders and the three groups of leadership attributes, with particular attention to leadership values.
Interviews by the author and his graduate students with over four hundred public sector managers have identified specific values as essential to effective leadership. In fact, certain key values are considered by Canadian public sector managers to be among the most important attributes of effective leaders. They are also some of the attributes of effective leadership that are seen to be most in need of improvement across the public sector.
Effective organizational leadership
When asked to define effective organizational leadership in the public sector, responses were varied, but tended to fall into common themes. Here are some examples of the responses from the managers and executives interviewed:
· “Leadership is having the vision of where you want the organization to go, finding the people and resources to take it there, and letting them do the job with guidance and direction along the way.”
· “A leader can inspire, provide clear vision, demonstrate respect for colleagues, and get results.”
· “My concept of leadership is having a clear understanding of the big picture combined with the knowledge and people skills to ensure agency goals are met. It is the ability to instil enthusiasm and share your vision so that everyone in their role is working towards a common goal.”
· “A leader is someone who can guide an organization by inspiring the staff to work together towards the mission of the organization. A good leader encourages staff members to work towards his or her potential.”
· “Leadership is ensuring that your employees are given a chance to do their jobs, all the tools they need to function, and a clear direction. Afterwards they must be given the credit for what they do and be commended. The leader sets the standards and goals, leads by example, and tries to inspire employees to reach their full potential.”
Content analysis of 444 open-ended responses to this question led to the identification of three key roles that public sector managers feel are the central aspects of organizational leadership in the public sector:
Establish purpose and direction
Within the broader public service governance framework, the leader’s first role is to assess the organization’s external and internal environment, including the interests of stakeholders, clients and employees, and within that context, to collaboratively develop and articulate clear purpose, relevant direction, and challenging goals for the organization.
Gain resources, achieve commitment, and inspire staff
The leader’s second role is to develop and communicate the organizational vision, strategy and priorities in such a way that staff are inspired and become deeply committed to the organization’s strategic direction and its goals, and clearly understand their own role in achieving them; in this context, the leader’s role is also to acquire the right people and resources to ensure success.
Achieve high performance
The leader’s third role is to achieve results: to create and sustain a high performance culture and climate, where staff feel respected, motivated, supported and rewarded to work together to achieve a high level of organizational performance.
These three core roles can be seen as part of an overall model of organizational leadership:
Attributes of effective leaders
There is a significant leadership literature identifying the attributes of effective private sector leaders. For example, Kouzes and Posner (The Leadership Challenge: 2003) have asked thousands of managers to identify the most important characteristics of good private sector leaders. Their top ten attributes, in rank order, are:
Honest Forward-looking Competent Inspiring Intelligent Fair-minded Broad-minded Supportive Straightforward Dependable.
Interestingly, two values – honesty and fair-mindedness – make the top ten, and honesty tops all other attributes of admired leaders.
This private sector research naturally raises the question: what are the most important attributes of effective public service leaders, and are they the same or different? To answer this question, the author’s leadership research asked 444 public sector executives and managers (a majority were federal managers) to identify the most important attributes of effective public service leaders. While the human resources literature often uses the term “competencies,” this is not the term that emerged most frequently in open-ended interviews about effective leadership. Instead, public managers generally used three sets of terms to describe the attributes required to be an effective public sector leader: values, knowledge and skills.
With regard to values and ethics, when asked in open-ended questions about the important attributes required to be an effective public sector leader, managers most frequently mentioned two sets of values and ethics: honesty and integrity, and respect and caring for people. Based on responses to the open-ended questions about the attributes of effective leadership, a questionnaire was developed which listed specific knowledge, values and skills required by effective leaders, and interviewees were asked to rank the elements they considered to be the most important.
The top-ranked attributes of effective leadership were identified as follows by federal managers (top twelve in rank order):
Honesty and integrity Communication and listening skills Respect/Caring for people Team player/Team builder Visioning skills Judgement and decision making skills Sets clear goals Inspires and motivates staff Knows the business Empowers staff Strategic planning skills Management of change skills.
Interestingly, two of the top three attributes of effective leaders involved values and ethics. These results demonstrate the important role of values and ethics in public service leadership, and suggest the need to focus leadership development and improvement on “walking” core values, in addition to the development of leadership skills and knowledge.
Ethics and values
When specifically asked to select the most important values required for effective public sector leadership, the following rank-ordered list emerged:
RELATIVE IMPORTANCE PRIORITY FOR IMPROVEMENT