September 29, 2014 - It takes courage to lead in today's public sector


Originally appearing in Canadian Government Executive

What are the traits that will define the next generation of successful public service leaders? Managerial aplomb? Policy expertise? An ability to ‘speak truth to power’? How about courage, humility and resilience?

In recent conversations with over 130 established and emerging Canadian leaders across sectors, it was these three core qualities that were most frequently emphasized as critical for public service leadership now and in the future.

There is no question that senior government jobs across the country are more difficult today than in the past. Against the backdrop of complex global issues, heightened citizen expectation for efficient services, fiscal restraint, and increased accountability measures, current leaders in the public service simply face more urgent demands, delivered under greater scrutiny, than ever before.

Not surprisingly, the list of skills and attributes needed to navigate the new normal are many and varied. Public sector leaders today and tomorrow need to have sharp business acumen, an entrepreneurial drive, and greater technological fluency, among others. They need to espouse a range of attributes, from creativity and passion to integrity and pragmatism.

New dynamics are also redefining the role of the public service. Leaders today must embrace greater innovation, as well as collaborative policymaking and program execution. And with a huge demographic shift unfolding across Canada’s public sector, there is a need to consider and advance – perhaps even re-think – the way talent is managed in government to ensure that future public sector leaders have the capacity to meet changing needs.

In this context, greater attention needs to be placed on diversity recruitment and mentorship and development at all levels, but especially mechanisms that encourage greater mobility across departments, jurisdictions and sectors.     

While our discussions with leaders across Canada focused on the present context and the implications for future competencies, we kept returning to the three foundational requirements for individuals who will thrive as leaders.

Courage was the most common theme throughout our conversations. To be effective as policy advisors and crisis managers, public service leaders need to face challenges head-on. In addition to providing fearless advice, leaders must have the courage to push for necessary change and stand behind their decisions, especially in the current environment of risk aversion.

Increased roles and responsibilities for senior leaders make this even more necessary. Leaders must be able to navigate accountability parameters with their political masters, never shying from these difficult discussions. In an era of fiscal restraint, leaders also need to be able to make and enact tough decisions in their operations.     

Humility is another core trait highlighted by emerging and established leaders alike. Rather than a lack of confidence, leaders who practice humility appreciate the value of collaboration. Understanding one’s own strengths and weaknesses and being able to build a team that includes broad and comprehensive talents are essential. Humility also ensures a capacity to empathize and connect with others.  

The vast majority of the problems tackled by governments today require a high degree of collaboration with those outside government. Whether it’s the development of new policy, the refinement of a regulatory regime, or the co-delivery of a program, finding solutions to challenging issues requires an acceptance of shared power. Humility enables leaders to build relationships and leverage the expertise of others in support of common interests.
Resilience is an absolute requirement considering the pressures on public sector leaders. From adapting to rapid change to coping with demanding workloads, effective leaders need to persevere through hard times. Some of those we spoke to cited the real concern of job burnout. In fact, many outside of the public sector marveled at the ability of senior leaders to function against so many, often unrealistic, demands.

Resilient leaders also keep an eye on constant evolution, seeking new ideas and approaches that enable more responsiveness. Although there are operational and cultural restrictions on how much change can be pursued in government, the best leaders guide their organizations to keep pace with the world around them.  

Public service leaders are adapting to growing complexity in an increasingly risk-averse, resource-strapped environment. Intractable issues are certainly not new to government. Public services across the country need to transform their cultures and modernize their practices to become flatter, more flexible and increasingly forward-looking organizations.

Against these new realities, we still need leaders who practice courage, humility and resiliency.


The Public Policy Forum’s report, Flat, Flexible and Forward-Thinking: Public Service Next, is available at