Developing Executive Leadership in the Public Sector: Government Agencies Can Improve Their Management Effectiveness through Internal Leadership Development That Nurtures Key Skills, Behaviors, and Knowledge

By Turner, Jeff | The Public Manager, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Developing Executive Leadership in the Public Sector: Government Agencies Can Improve Their Management Effectiveness through Internal Leadership Development That Nurtures Key Skills, Behaviors, and Knowledge


Turner, Jeff, The Public Manager


Well-led organizations produce results. Effective leaders enable organizations to innovate, respond to changes in markets and environments, creatively address challenges, and sustain high performance. Effective leadership creates a culture that engages employees and clients and promotes focus, energy, and spirit.

Good management goes a long way toward keeping an organization on track, but it is leadership that guides organizations toward strategic goals. And it is leadership that enables executives and managers to steer a course when organizations must tackle new challenges. Leadership development is a critical function of organizations.

Government leaders must succeed in the face of unique and complex challenges:

* Frequent changes in policy direction due to high turnover rates in elected and appointed leadership and hyper-responsiveness of political leaders to topical issues

* An employee distrust of transient political leaders that migrates to relationships with career leaders

* Competing goals, missions, and mandates

* Chronic resource shortages

* Competition with the higher-paying private sector for top talent.

Huge problems face America's public agencies, from epidemics to aging infrastructure, to uninsured children, to overcrowded jails and prisons. Clearly, public-sector leadership is enormously challenging and requires individuals with the right experience and training.

America's Public Leadership Crisis

Despite the critical functions American public agencies perform, they are experiencing a leadership crisis. According to the Partnership for Public Service's the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government 2007, the key driver of employee satisfaction in the federal workplace is leadership, yet employees rank effective leadership near the bottom of a list of existing environmental criteria in that same survey.

State and local governments' need for leadership is even greater than at the federal level. Many new responsibilities have devolved upon states and localities at the same time that funding, training, and technical assistance resources have shrunk. Local government executives are also expected to lead strategic change, not only in their organizations, but in their communities.

The Solution

Ongoing leadership development programs are needed inside government agencies to create a "deep bench" of leadership capacity throughout the organization. Such capacity will position agencies to achieve their strategic goals. Leadership development is a dynamic undertaking that weds three critical components: (1) the organization's specific mission and culture, (2) the individual's personality and strengths, and (3) organization-specific leadership behaviors, skills, and knowledge. In the public sector, this process does not require extraordinary resources or political support. In fact, the best leadership development programs are those that embed themselves in the organization such that they weather changes in administrations, organizational restructures, and resources.

Executive Leadership Indicators

Researchers and management theorists posit many ideas about what leadership is and how it can be measured. The literature frequently emphasizes several indicators, including self-knowledge, personal accountability, strategy setting, engaging others, and harnessing insights.

Self-Knowledge

Knowing one's own values and motivations; making explicit one's personal vision, beliefs, and aspirations; and being able to observe one's own conduct are critical leadership traits. Self-knowledge enables executives to dispassionately assess how their leadership impacts their organization and helps them identify skills gaps.

Personal Accountability

Like it or not, leaders are accountable for organizational performance. Leadership requires a personal commitment, a willingness to step into the breach and take on the organization's challenges. …

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