Designing, developing and delivering tailor-made leadership programs for developing governments is a delicate and intense endeavor that unavoidably becomes a journey. It is a fundamental challenge for the success of any government transformation, but it is worth every effort.
There is a tendency for some western members of the global “leadership industry” to consider leadership development as a commodity, a formula to be replicated, with marginal adjustments for the benefit of developing governments.
This approach is shortsighted. It usually results in grafted, superficial (or “outside-in,” according to Henry Mintzberg) interventions and approaches with limited – if not non-existent – sustainable outcomes, particularly when applied to developing governments.
The commodity approach to leadership development ignores a series of fundamental realities to which executives of developing governments are confronted on a regular basis. Among such realities, two are of particular significance.
First, they must deal with limited resources. This applies, of course, to financial resources but also to human resources. Some developing governments, in Africa for instance, are confronted with a shortage of skilled candidates for leadership programs. Others, such as territorial governments here in Canada, are confronted with a very small Indigenous workforce and forced to rely on significant contingents of “expats” to complement their local personnel. In such cases, one of the perverse effects of the commodity approach is often the perpetuation of the situation by “exporting” leadership development programs that are ultimately by and for expats, rather than focused on recruiting, training and retaining Indigenous public servants.
Second, to be truly legitimate, credible and, ultimately, responsive to the needs of its population, a government must adopt a way of operating that reflects the culture (i.e., values, aspirations, practices) of the people it serves. Usually, in the case of developing governments, such culture is strong and quite different from Western standards we might be accustomed to.
In the Northern regions of Canada, the cultural dimension is critical. The government of Nunavut, for instance, has articulated a series of values to guide the process of building a new government and decision-making process. These societal values include specific dimensions such as respecting others and caring for people; fostering good spirits by being open, welcoming and inclusive; serving and providing for family and/or community; making decisions through discussion and consensus; developing skills through observation, mentoring, practice, and effort; working together for a common cause; being innovative and resourceful; and, respecting and caring for the land, animals and the environment.
Any leadership program not designed specifically to integrate these genuine and vivid core values will lead to failure.
Here are some of the key challenges facing public leaders in developing governments:
1. Dealing with scarce resources and addressing fundamental societal issues;
2. Balancing competing demands often imposed by external forces;
3. Demonstrating capacity to adapt to a changing world and deal as equal partners with external stakeholders;
4. Strengthening the public service by building a skilled, engaged and effective workforce;
5. Recruiting beyond the traditional chain of public administration schools system (e.g., private sector, women) to broaden the variety of perspectives and experience in decision-making;
6. Distinguishing and assuming the political responsibilities from administrative roles, hence assuming personal leadership capabilities;
7. Recognizing that formal hierarchal authority (legitimacy) and personal ability to influence (credibility) are two essential, but fundamentally different pillars of leadership; and,
8. Setting up goals based on the “common good” and setting out incentive mechanisms.
Experience shows that it is only when several key dimensions are respected that leadership development initiatives generate sustainable outcomes:
• Programs must be developed for Indigenous public servants and need to reflect the culture of the population they serve;
• Emphasis should be put equally on purpose, competencies and training methodology;
• Inclusive participatory discussions should be held with government representatives to promote true collaboration and team work throughout the learning phases;
• Enriching the content requires on-going validation with a wide variety of perspectives;
• Mixing leading-edge in-class learning approaches with other personalized practices is most likely to provoke necessary changes in behaviors;
• Creating a welcoming and supportive learning environment is essential for establishing a climate of trust;
• Continuous assessment and adjustment is critical to keep the program current and aligned with changing circumstances;
• Follow-up phases must be considered to facilitate consolidation of acquired competencies and actual assimilation within working habits and practices; and,
• Open communication must be maintained throughout the project to keep key stakeholders aware of what is going on, thereby fostering engagement and dispelling uncertainties.