Who wields power…leaders or followers? - Canadian Government Executive
Leadership
May 7, 2012

Who wields power…leaders or followers?

CGE Vol. 14 No.5 May 2008

The subject is leadership. Not very original granted, as the Internet search engine Google lists 136 million references for the term, including 2.5 million entries re: Leadership in the Public Sector and a mere one million for the French equivalent Leadership dans le secteur public. One must therefore conclude that “leadership” sells well indeed, at least in the Anglo-Saxon world, although perhaps a lot less in the public sector than in the private sector, and even less in France.

That, at least, is the impression that one of the authors of the article came away with last year during a brief visit to the École nationale d’administration de France. It is as a result of that visit that he and two of his colleagues decided to write an article on the subject of administrative leadership – that which is performed or should be performed “in” (and not “on”) public administration.

In an attempt to consider the meaning of this type of leadership, we briefly touch upon three general proposals described in detail in the original article.

An initial proposal emphasizes the fact that, in spite of the careful thought and many studies devoted to the subject of leadership, the numerous profiles drawn of leaders do not form a consensus. Lists of the various qualities and skills required by a leader are more impressive in their scope rather than in their ability to convince that they are the exclusive domain of leaders. In fact, no consensus has been reached regarding any individual qualities characteristic of leaders.

A second proposal warns of the exaggerated importance given to leaders and leadership. In accepting that leadership is fundamentally a relationship between a leader and some followers, we must therefore pay equal attention to the followers and to the relationship they have agreed to maintain with their leader. The power wielded by a leader can stem from various sources (for example, the level of his position or the recognition of her expertise). Leadership, however, presents this distinction – it is first and foremost a relationship of power with the power flowing from the influence that the leader’s followers allow him or her to maintain.

Therefore, although much thought has been devoted to leaders, we have generally overlooked their followers and the reasons why they consent to be followers and allow such a relationship of power to develop. A third and final proposal centers on the fact that due to the complexity of today’s world and the resulting uncertainty, along with the urgent feeling that some sort of intervention is required (without knowing quite how to proceed), we have embarked on a search for “leaders of men” capable of assisting us, by thought and deed, to give some meaning to our ever-changing world. This proposal is based on the notion that great leaders can only become famous through events, and more than likely because of them, or in the context of particularly difficult times for the people or populations affected. In fact, it is doubtful whether the De Gaules, the Churchills, the Gandhis or the Mandelas of this world would have become famous as leaders in any other context.

The article from which these three proposals have been drawn also provides some remedies such as the need of a more precise concept of what is meant by “leadership” and the importance of focusing on the “training” of leaders. The article also invites the reader to question any characteristics pertaining to the “administrative leadership,” as exemplified in various governments and carried out most often, but not entirely, by executives.

Although we may agree intuitively that leadership has its place in public administration, we cannot easily rule on what gives this leadership its specific character and therefore determine if indeed there is a lack of leadership and if there are basic gaps in its execution.

Administrative leadership also presents some specific conceptual challenges. For example: what does it mean to exercise leadership within a conglomeration of public organizations whose very existence depends upon its dealings with a government in power – especially a minority government? A further example: it is not unusual to hear that our leaders should embody a vision. But, if this is so, a vision based on what? On public administration and its policies and programs for the coming years? If so, what are the respective roles to be played by elected representatives, by a democratic government and an administration as regards the development of any one or more of these visions?

In this regard, Kevin Lynch, leader of the Public Service of Canada, recently declared with reason, “that public servants don’t make policy decisions, elected governments do; the job of the public service is to provide governments with well researched, analytically rigorous, unbiased policy options and recommendations”. This type of submission to political leadership in a democratic government, if legitimate, qualifies the public service as follower rather than leader. And if this is a valid statement as regards public policy, what then of the administrative leadership role in the light of any course of action involving administrative reform?

Perhaps such a role merely consists in knowing how to adjust the conduct of any administration faced with numerous and constant political, social and technological change, in knowing how to adopt best practices often initiated elsewhere, and how to imagine and put into effect the post-bureaucratic administration of the future?

A further issue deals with the direction administrative leadership should take at various levels of management. Proposals in this regard and any corresponding skills have already been put forward by organizations dedicated to leadership training. Do we then expect all executives, in their desire for competency, to possess leadership qualities, from the clerk of the court and upwards through the various levels of the hierarchy? If the notion of leadership can be adapted to fit any case – if it is attached to any hierarchic authority – do we not run the risk of turning it into a handy commodity rather than a distinctive responsibility to be carried out by some within an ever-evolving administration?

Finally, how can an administrative leadership be harmonized in the light of an increasingly multicultural Canadian society, of a new generation of individuals occupying positions of power and whose values often differ from those of their predecessors, and of the presence of women who, more and more frequently, are installed in these positions and, of whom it is said, wield their power in unique ways?

Quite obviously, the notion of leadership as enacted in various administrations raises many issues.

Daniel Maltais and Natalie Rinfret are professors at the École nationale d’administration publique. Natalie Rinfret is also holder of the Chaire La Capitale en leadership dans le secteur public (www.chairelacapitale.enap.ca).

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