Many countries are streamlining government, strengthening institutions, and modernizing management. Effective reforms rely upon the stewardship of dynamic leaders in an era of networked government and collaborative leadership. Stewards are catalysts of innovation who mobilize time, talent, and resources. They navigate precariously between the dangers of inflexible bureaucracies while remaining true to public goals and good practice.
The Treasury Board of Canada institutionalized stewardship as one of ten leadership competencies in its Management Accountability Framework. Stewardship assures that public resources are managed with prudence and probity. Departmental control regimes – assets, money, people, services – are expected to be integrated and clear.
Public servants are responsible for searching high and low for new ideas and synergies, tapping every likely source – frontline operatives, middle management, top leaders, the private sector, not-for-profit organizations, academia. Their mission demands a shift in core competencies from managerial skills to networking, facilitation, and negotiation with partners and stakeholders.
Resilient leaders are needed at all levels, working cooperatively towards greater interests. International research is challenging conventional wisdom that:
• Central agency managers are ‘natural change leaders’ due to position, reach, and influence;
• Frontline managers are ‘natural change agents’ due to visibility, access, and reach; and
• Middle managers are too limited in status, power, access, and scope to influence change.
Instead, middle managers are emerging as the true change makers and disciples of reform. These traditional targets of downsizing and restructuring now appear needed more than ever in tough times. Roles in the middle show the greatest potential for surfacing and sustaining innovation.
Middle managers are loyal to the public service as an institution but worldly enough to garner support at the political-administrative interface. They are schooled in transformational skills but rely upon collaboration to transcend boundaries and upon stewardship to leverage change. Their impact is greatest when their cause aligns central government priorities and frontline intelligence.
Leaders in the middle coordinate relationships with politicians, citizens, and the private sector, normally the territory of the front lines. They also integrate policy, budget, and special interests, normally the purview of central government. They network beyond their domain to improve how government works.
Middle managers grapple daily with public service alienation and discontent. They are empathetic team leaders who tend to two-way communication, employee engagement, and talent management. Along with young professionals, they have the most to gain from renewal efforts like Blueprint 2020.