ETHOS Issue 16, Dec 2016
A NEW CONTEXT BRINGS NEW CHALLENGES
Several significant trends are fundamentally changing the way organisations around the world operate. One of these is digitisation, which has led to increasing acceleration, both of activities and expected results. In parallel, there are growing expectations of transparency, which in turn lead to more assertive and demanding customers, employees and citizens. This is all happening in an environment in which competitive conditions are tightening everywhere and resources are increasingly scarce.
Public sector agencies, like other organisations, have employees and bosses, so some of the issues they face in light of this new context will be similar to those in the private sector. But they are also unique in several important ways.
First, the public sector has historically been a monopoly, in terms of being a supplier of certain types of services. However, this monopoly is being increasingly challenged: many such activities have been privatised, and non-state players are starting to offer alternative ways to deliver some services. The presence of alternative providers means that there is now growing competition for some of the services the public sector have traditionally provided, which contributes to the greater assertiveness of citizens, who in the past might have been likely to be more grateful and compliant even if they were not completely satisfied with public services delivered.
If you measure everything against very
intense, short-term targets, you risk
crowding out breakthroughs that require
more time, investment and perhaps even
a temporary drop in performance.
Second, it is never easy to measure the performance of an organisation, even for those that have a profit motive. Performance measurement is particularly challenging for the civil service, because the outcomes are so varied and can involve significant trade-offs. If performance cannot be measured accurately, it becomes difficult to assess if you have allocated enough of the right resources in the right way for the proper functioning of the organisation towards its mission. The education system is an example. How do you measure performance? There are standardised tests, or the number of people you can place in university and so on. We can measure short-term academic success, but how do we measure students’ willingness and ability to be happy and productive citizens throughout their lives, especially in a fast changing world? And if we can’t measure success accurately, it’s hard to assess the extent to which we should re-allocate resources between groups or types of students.
Third, the Singapore Public Service has become particularly effective and efficient, in large part through a relentless search for incremental improvement within organisational boundaries: an agency or ministry working actively and continually at improving its performance. I think this presents the Public Service with two challenges. First, the relentless pursuit of incremental gains often ends up reducing one’s ability to produce breakthroughs. When you are working very hard for a two percent improvement every year, you are not spending as much time asking how you might be able to improve by twenty percent. There is a point at which, if you measure everything against very intense, short-term targets, you risk crowding out breakthroughs that require more time, investment and perhaps even a temporary drop in performance.
In addition, when you work so intensely within institutional entities, you do not necessarily foster as much cooperation across agencies, which is typically needed to provide an effective and sustainable solution to the big problems the Public Service is now trying to tackle. For instance, if the long-term goal is to get people out of poverty, several organisations must collaborate to create sustainable solutions. Some will be more focused on alleviating symptoms, others will focus on short-term and longer term enablers. But unless these agencies work together effectively in service of the overall goal, the whole will be less than the sum of the parts. Putting the two aspects together, i.e., the pursuit of improvements that are incremental and within organisational boundaries, may be an area where the public sector is reaching the limits of a model that has served it very well in the past.
We live in a world where
it really pays to involve
people in finding answers
that they themselves are
going to be committed to.
Last but not least, we live in a world where it really pays to involve people in finding answers that they themselves are going to be committed to. Leaders should be able to specify desired outcomes, especially when there is some potential ambiguity or trade-offs between these outcomes. Leaders will then need to be able to create processes which the various stakeholders can engage with to arrive at solutions that they are able and willing to help implement quickly. This is less of the traditional top-down approach and more of a model that requires a greater degree of comfort with uncertainty and lack of complete control on the part of leaders.
Leaders need to be hard of
hearing, but not deaf.
FOUR TRAITS OF EFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP
As always, success in this new context will require leaders to display a wide range of behaviours. But I would like to highlight four dimensions that will be particularly important.
First is a leadership that models the attitudes we want our staff to display towards our customers and citizens. In settings where care matters: hospitals and schools, for example, we know that the way leaders treat staff translates into the way staff treat their patients or students. Leaders must model the attitude they want employees to demonstrate. In particular, they will need to be participative and productively assertive at the same time. The former is important because we live in a world where it is increasingly difficult to tell people what you want them to do all the time: people want to be involved and engaged, and leaders have to make room for that. At the same time, bosses need to learn (and to model for their staff) how to be assertive in a way that also allows others to be assertive. Leaders need to listen, and they also need to decide: on occasion, there will be no consensus, or the consensus will be wrong. So leaders will have to manage their openness towards feedback and noise: listen when necessary, but also act on their own judgement. One way of saying this is leaders need to be hard of hearing, but not deaf.
Second, leadership needs to be honest and fair, and to be perceived as honest and fair. In a world where there is growing loss of public confidence in institutions and in the elite — whether business or political — this dimension is becoming exceedingly important. We have seen around the world that such loss of confidence can lead to immense public anger and frustration. On the other hand, the evidence is clear that when we approach people in ways that are perceived to be fair, they are more willing to go along with negative outcomes. “Patients” are more willing to accept pain when they understand why the course of action is the least bad solution and when they trust the “doctor”: there is a plan, and at an individual level there is credibility and trust that after the pain things will improve over time.
Third, leadership will need to be cooperative and focus on the big picture. In the public sector, that means focusing on your own unit as well as on the bigger picture, and the increasing need for cooperation with other units for the greater good.
Fourth, leaders will have to be resilient. We live in a tough world, where stuff happens all the time, and not necessarily in the way we would like. Leaders have to be able to take hits all day and still remain productive and positively oriented. A senior corporate board member I interviewed recently says that he actively looks for people who have failed. Those who haven’t failed, he thinks, are either deluding themselves or haven’t tried anything significant. Instead, he wants to see how people have managed their failures and recovered from them, what they’ve learnt from the experience. The idea is not to look for leaders that are bullet-proof; it is to identify those who have taken bullets and have been able to recover well and learn from their experience.
The evidence is clear that
when we approach people
in ways that are perceived
to be fair, they are more
willing to go along with
DEVELOPING LEADERS FOR THE FUTURE
It is not natural for human beings to be involving, cooperative, patient, nurturing and assertive and comfortable with uncertainty or failure and…. All of us can be some of these things. In fact, most of us can be all of these things, but at different times! We’re simply not designed to be all of these simultaneously. How then do we cultivate a kind of leadership which approaches things differently?
At the risk of stating the obvious, I think the first lever is to have good role models, and these have obviously got to start at the top. For these good examples to be found at the top, they need to be selected, and then developed and nurtured to embody these skills.
How do we do this? One, we need to be very articulate about what we want and specify the characteristics we are looking for. We then need to recruit, promote and offer incentives according to these traits. We will continue to need smart, technically capable people who are great policymakers. But we probably also need more individuals who in addition to being good policy makers are also outstanding leaders, who can enable and magnify the performance of hundreds of people within and around their agency.
Beyond recruitment and promotion, we can also help leaders to develop new capabilities over time. Some will wonder whether this is really possible. Can leaders really learn to produce behaviours that do not come “naturally” to them? We have all seen competent and well intentioned individuals attend leadership development programmes and return to work full of resolve, e.g., to delegate or listen more. But somehow, after a few weeks this resolve tends to wane and nature seems to regain the upper hand…
The idea is not to look for leaders that
are bullet-proof; it is to identify those
who have taken bullets and have been
able to recover well and learn from
Research on this subject is increasingly clear: When human beings work hard and intelligently enough at it for long enough, they can develop new capabilities — they can learn to produce behaviours that do not come to them “naturally”. That is what Warren Bennis concluded toward the end of an illustrious career devoted to studying and developing leaders: “The truth”, he said, “is that major capacities and competencies of leadership can be learned, and we are all educable, at least if the basic desire to learn is there (…). Furthermore (…), nurture is far more important than nature in determining who becomes a successful leader.”1
Displaying a new behavioural response feels awkward at first, but with practice we become increasingly effective (i.e., we successfully produce the desired behaviour at a high level of quality) and efficient at it (i.e., displaying the desired behaviour requires a decreasing amount of effort). Business schools and organisations like the Civil Service College have a major role to play in this development process.
WHAT TOMORROW'S LEADERS SHOULD DO TODAY
My most important piece of advice for leaders who want to succeed today and tomorrow? Take your continuous professional and personal development very seriously! While you may start out with a good education, intelligence and other credentials, we live in a world of permanent and rapid change in which new challenges are emerging every day. More than ever, a leader’s ability to continue to develop new competencies over time is going to be the best predictor of their future success. Beyond learning new content, this also means learning new capabilities and behaviours. Ultimately, leaders impact the world less through what they know than through what they do and the way they do it.
Ultimately, leaders impact the world less
through what they know than through
what they do and the way they do it.
In particular, you might want to invest time and energy to developing your ability to help people to do what they don’t want to do in order to achieve the goals they do want to achieve. As US political commentator George Will put it, “Leadership is, among other things, the ability to inflict pain and get away with it — short-term pain for long-term gain.” There can hardly be any progress without some delayed gratification. That is true at the individual, team, organisational and even country level. So your ability to help people to “do the right thing even when — in fact, especially when — it’s unpleasant” will be a very important asset for you as a leader.
Three possible avenues for you in this quest: First, honestly examine your motives as a leader. Are you mainly focused on helping your organisation to achieve its goals and your employees to succeed and grow? Or are you very focused on ensuring your own success and career progression? Some degree of personal ambition is not unreasonable and can in fact be very healthy, but research also shows that other things equal, individuals and organisations tend to respond better to leaders who are devoted to a greater purpose than themselves. People are more likely to accept pain from you if they know that your main motivation is their welfare and success than if they feel they are pawns on your career’s chessboard.
They are also more likely to accept pain from you if they feel that you understand the pain you are causing — if they feel you are intellectually and emotionally connected to them. Some degree of empathy will be helpful, in this respect. By the way, empathy can be also be a bit of a double-edged sword, as excessive empathy can lead to bad public policy. Compassion, which combines feeling sympathy for the plight of others and a desire to help, is a more promising avenue for leaders.2
More generally, you will have to work at finding the right level of emotional connection/distance at any point in time. While some degree of distance can undoubtedly help leadership effectiveness (including because intense emotions can hamper the quality of decision making), too many leaders end up distancing themselves excessively from their own and others’ emotions. In the same way that you cannot be engaging if you’re not engaged, you must be connected to your own emotions in order to be able to connect to others’ emotions.
Last but not least, learn to involve and enrol others into the process of finding solutions to problems they want to solve. French poet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”3 Agreeing on the outcome we want to create is a powerful step to involving the troops into identifying the way this goal can be reached. Involvement leads to commitment, which leads to superior effort and performance.
These four dimensions are relatively easy to write about and very easy to read. They are much harder for leaders to enact every day, especially when under pressure caused by performance goals, time and resource constraints. For most of us, it will be the journey of a lifetime.
- Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus, Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge (New York: Harper and Row, 1985).
- For more on the difference between empathy and compassion, see the excellent work done at the Max Planck Institute by Tania Singer and her team (e.g., https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-hKS4rucTY) or a good article at http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/compassion/definition
- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Wisdom of the Sands (Citadelle), trans. Stuart Gilbert (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).