Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

The Leadership Role of the Municipal Chief Administrative Officer

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

The Leadership Role of the Municipal Chief Administrative Officer

Article excerpt

Much has been written about leadership, ranging from evidence-based academic research to folksy advice columns, and what has been written tends to be fairly generic, assuming that leadership is leadership regardless of the type of organization. In the realm of public administration, quite a bit has been written about the leadership role of senior public servants, and there is also considerable literature on the role of deputy ministers in federal and provincial governments. However, very little has been written that specifically addresses the leadership role of the municipal chief administrative officer (CAO). (1)

By arguing that the municipal CAO occupies a unique position with regard to the leadership skills required of the incumbent, this article fills that lacuna. My purpose here is to describe the contemporary role of the municipal CAO, with special emphasis on the leadership qualities expected in this position. This role has changed much over time, since the role of municipal government has changed and the role of senior managers in any public-service organization has changed.

This article is a product of the usual academic research, but it also reflects a great deal that I have learned from numerous discussions with senior administrators and from teaching a number of mid-career public servants. They ought to receive full credit for many of the ideas expressed here, although as usual the author takes responsibility for any misunderstandings that might have occurred. In the municipal management field, the "usual academic research" must rely fairly heavily on sources from the United States. We are still developing our own Canadian literature in this field. This is another reason why the involvement of mid-career public servants was essential. In my discussions with them, I have frequently found that they were sometimes receptive to foreign literature but that they were also quick to insert Canadian perspectives when necessary.

I begin by describing the differences between local government and parliamentary systems that prevent lessons about leadership from flowing freely between the two types of entities. The second section of the article reviews some of the relevant literature on leadership to identify what is expected of leaders in general. The next three sections analyse the three roles of the municipal CAO as leader--leading down, leading out, and leading up. The concluding section then ties these varying roles together by using contingency theory to argue that the successful municipal leader must be able to shift gears and demonstrate different types of leadership skills in different situations.

The unique character of municipal government

The role of senior managers in public organizations has been well documented. Some of this research is relevant to municipal CAOs, but some misses the mark because the structures of municipal governments are sufficiently different from those of parliamentary systems that lessons do not travel well between the two types of governmental structures.

As the highest-ranking appointed person in the municipal hierarchy, the CAO plays a significant role with regard to the linkage between the political arm of government (mayor and councillors) and the administrative arm of government (the appointed public service). Very good descriptions of the CAO position and its evolution in Canada can be found in Thomas Plunkett (1992) and Trevor Price (1995). There are some similarities between this position and a secretary to cabinet in a parliamentary system, (2) but the operation of a municipal government differs from a parliamentary system in ways that are very significant for the role of the CAO. (Andrew Sancton writes about the mayor, but he discusses many of these differences [1994].)

First, parliamentary systems have an executive branch in the form of a cabinet, with a first minister who is usually described as primus inter pares. …

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