ETHOS Issue 23, October 2021
If leaders are judged by how they lead in
context, then the business of developing
public sector leaders must account for the
operational and organisational environment
into which they will transfer their learning.
With the increasing complexity of today’s
challenges, however, we see a shift in the
role of positional leaders (defined here
as those formally appointed to positions
of authority by the organisation), with a
growing emphasis on achieving results
through supporting and developing
officers, and adapting the organisation
Leadership development approaches
will likewise have to go beyond building
up the individual leader’s capacity,
towards nurturing the capacities of
their teams and organisations. There
will also need to be a focus on building
new capacities that enable leaders to
foster leadership and innovation in
others at work.
RETHINKING THE ROLE OF POSITIONAL LEADERS
The changing context in which
leaders now operate demands that
organisations redefine how they think
about positional leaders. Our traditional
conception of the ‘leader-as-hero’1 —positional leaders as charismatic heroes who are fully in control and who provide
all the plans and insightful answers—may
no longer serve us well. Instead, we need
to think of positional leaders as hosts
—people who provide the conditions,
processes and resources for others to
come together for a common purpose
in addressing a complex problem at
hand. This ‘leader-as-host’ perspective
acknowledges that a leader does
not have all the answers, but instead
finds ways to access and unleash the
collective intelligence and energies
that reside in their teams and networks.2
We need to think of
positional leaders as hosts—
people who provide the
conditions, processes and
resources for others to come
together for a common
THE CHANGING CONTEXT FOR LEADERSHIP
GREATER COMPLEXITY AND ACCELERATED CHANGE
Societies around the world are beset with an operating
environment of increasing complexity, interdependence,
volatility, accelerated change, and ‘wicked’ problems that cut
across conventional boundaries.1, 2, 3, 4 A prime example is the
ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Future challenges, such as that
of climate change, will call for similar collaboration, with leaders
who are able to work across disciplinary and administrative
lines, with incomplete information in a dynamic situation.
KNOWLEDGE WORK IN THE INFORMATION AGE
In the Information Age, knowledge workers, including
many public officers, ‘think for a living’5 and are engaged
in ‘non-routine’ work that calls for problem-solving skills,
and critical and creative thinking.6 A different type of
leadership is needed to harness the wealth of expertise in
and across organisations. While leaders define the aims to
be achieved, it is up to skilled officers to detail the steps
needed to realise timely solutions.
TECHNOLOGY-DRIVEN PARADIGM SHIFTS
Digitalisation and technological advancements have disrupted
established business models, but have also surfaced new
opportunities for improving public service. Leaders need the
discernment and foresight to prepare their organisations to
adapt and leverage these developments to enhance their
operations and further the public good.
GENERATIONAL DIFFERENCES IN VALUES
A digitally native new cohort has grown up with worldviews,
aspirations and motivations that differ from those of previous
generations.7 They will expect different qualities from
their own leaders and are likely to enact different forms of
leadership once they assume these roles.
LEADERSHIP AT ALL LEVELS
While leadership has traditionally been expected from people
in appointed positions of authority, we now see it being
enacted by those not in formal leadership positions but who
nevertheless provide influence and direction. With ongoing
transformational efforts affecting hierarchical structures
and more team-based operations, leadership capability
and practice now reside at every level of an organisation.
- M. Maznevski, U. Steger, and W. Amann, “Managing Complexity in Global Organisations”,
IMD Perspectives for Managers 141 (February 2007), accessed August 20, 2018, https://www.imd.org/research/publications/upload/PFM141\_
- R. O’Leary and N. Vij, “Collaborative Public Management: Where Have We Been and Where Are We Going?” The American Review of Public
Administration 42, no. 5 (2012): 507–552.
- P. Williams, “The Competent Boundary Spanner”, Public Administration 80, no. 1 (2002): 103–124.
- H. T. Goh and E. W. Khoo, “Leading Cross-Boundary Collaborative Teams: The Human Dynamics Perspective”, research report
(Singapore: Civil Service College, 2018).
- T. H. Davenport, Thinking for A Living: How to Get Better Performances and Results from Knowledge Workers (Harvard Business Press, 2005).
- W. Reinhardt, B. Schmidt, P. Sloep, and H. Drachsler, “Knowledge Worker Roles and Actions—Results of Two Empirical Studies”,
Knowledge and Process Management 18, no. 3 (2011): 150–174.
- H. T. Goh, “Leadership across Generations”, Ethos 10 (2011): 87–96.
In order to play this role well, positional
leaders need to (i) sense-make and
sense-give in order to provide clarity
and direction, (ii) create the conditions
that enable innovative and adaptive
responses to emerge throughout the
organisation, and (iii) work well with
other leaders towards collective goals.
1. SENSE-MAKING AND SENSE-GIVING
In times of complexity, leaders need to
engage in sense-making to interpret and
explain unpredictable or ambiguous
events in their world.3 Furthermore,
they need to shape others’ sense-making processes and outcomes by
sense-giving: articulating a coherent,
understandable and tolerable narrative
of this complex reality.4 But while leaders
should provide a clear narrative in their
sense-giving, it is not helpful for them to
stick to a single, rigid narrative. Instead,
they need to flex the narrative in order
to address the divergent concerns and
priorities of those involved.5 Successful
sense-giving can rally everyone around a core purpose.
2. ENABLING INNOVATION
To tap on the collective competence of
their team, or of the organisation as a
whole, positional leaders must create
conditions that enable innovation.
Positional leaders, by virtue of the formal
power they hold, are well-placed to
establish organisational culture, systems
and processes. Taken together, leadership
actions such as championing the need for
change,6, 7, 8 strengthening connections
among people and organisational units
for generative conversations, building
a culture of psychological safety and
learning,9 and empowering staff to
initiate ideas, can enable innovative
responses to emerge throughout the
organisation.10, 11 In addition, positional
leaders need to define the boundaries
of innovation—by being clear on what
the vision of the organisation is and
what values should guide everyone’s
3. COLLECTIVE LEADERSHIP
It is becoming increasingly clear that
leaders do not work in silos. As issues
become more cross-cutting and
complex, leaders need to collaborate
with other leaders. Senior leadership is
increasingly recognised as ‘collective
work’,12 with the apex executive team
in organisations forming an important
collective entity. Thus, leaders also
need to know how to work together
with other leaders for the greater good.
While leaders should provide a clear narrative in their sense-giving, it is not
helpful for them to stick to a single, rigid narrative. They need to flex the narrative
in order to address the divergent concerns and priorities of those involved.
WHAT SHOULD LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT FOCUS ON?
As the role of positional leaders changes,
leadership development approaches
need to shift in tandem. We believe
that leadership development should
focus firstly on the intrapersonal
competencies that enable an individual
to lead himself or herself, then nurture
interpersonal competencies that
enable the individual to lead others, and
hence lead organisations, taking into
consideration the broader leadership
In the new leadership context, positional
leaders must re-examine and reconstruct
their leader identity, i.e., what an
individual defines leadership to be, and
the extent to which they consider such
a leader role to be an important aspect
of who they are.13 Being a leader-as-host
with a more collective orientation may
run counter to their implicit theory of
good leadership and the individualistic
leader-as-hero behaviours they are
more accustomed to seeing in other
leaders, and that they themselves are
more comfortable displaying. Shifting
this mindset is challenging as it requires
leaders to reflect and introspect, and
then embrace a new identity. It entails
being vulnerable and being comfortable
sharing power and control with others,
instead of being the one with all the
answers and who makes all the decisions.
This can be particularly difficult if social
and organisational norms continue
to expect and reward those who are
leaders-as-heroes. Nonetheless, as we
behave in ways that are aligned with
our self-identity, a mindset shift is the
prerequisite for motivating positional
leaders to develop new behaviours.
A core set of evergreen competencies
are meta-skills that enable leaders to
be more effective. In particular, these
include having a learning orientation
and being willing and able to learn
from experiences. Experience is at the
heart of leadership development, yet
people may go through an experience
without learning anything from it,14,15 or
learning the wrong lessons.16, 17
Another focal area for positional leaders
is vertical cognitive development—
helping leaders expand their thinking
and develop a more sophisticated
mode of thinking that can help them
grapple with the uncertainties and
diversities they will face in their new
role. As studies show,18 early in our
cognitive development as adults, we
are inclined to see things in black and
white terms, to conform to authority
and the status quo, and to seek to
be aligned with others. Later on, we
become more holistic and flexible in our
thinking, until we advance to become
independent thinkers who can see broader
systems, patterns and connections.
We then become more comfortable
with ambiguity and better able to shift
flexibly across multiple perspectives,
and to adjust our opinions to account
for new information. Such expanded
cognitive structures contribute to the
leader-as-host role, by helping leaders
better harness divergent views in their
team while holding a ‘big picture’
Figure 1. Focus of Leadership
Given the changing context of positional
leadership, some intrapersonal
competencies that have long been
core to leadership development should
continue to be emphasised. These
include values that ensure the practice
of leadership is underpinned by a strong
moral compass and are aligned with the
organisation’s ethos.19 For Singapore’s
Public Service leaders, this means being
grounded in the principles of integrity,
service and excellence. Public Service
leaders need to have a stewardship
mindset, so that they use their positional
power to make decisions that are for
the long-term collective good of the
nation.20 Emotional competencies
that enable leaders to be aware of
their own strengths and weaknesses,
to be mindful of and to manage their
behaviours and impact on others,
will be vital to the facilitative role of
The many demands and stresses on leaders
have never been greater, and leaders
need to develop personal resilience to
sustain their effectiveness in the longer
term. This involves being able to handle
pressure, to recognise and reduce the
impact that stress has on oneself, and
to adapt and bounce back in the face
of challenging circumstances, while
taking steps to maintain a stable mental
wellbeing. Those able to do so will be
more productive, make better decisions,
have more positive energy, and have
a more positive impact on the people
they work with.22 In modelling healthy
resilience in the face of vulnerability
and stress, leaders can also inspire their
teams and organisations to do the same.
Leadership development will need
to focus on building competence in
leading others in a more distributed and
facilitative manner. A shared leadership
approach to team processes can enable
a more agile and successful response
to complex challenges. Leadership has
shifted away from the traditional practice
where control or authority resides in
a single individual; it has become a
dynamic social process in which influence
is distributed within a team,23 geared
towards shared goals. Such a process
often involves “peer, or lateral, influence
and at other times involves upward or
downward hierarchical influence”.24
Positional leaders must be willing to
empower others to lead, and receive
guidance and direction from peers and
subordinates where relevant.25 To allow
this to occur, leaders must develop
leadership capabilities in their team
members and create the conditions
for team members to step up to the
responsibility of leadership.
To allow for the emergence of collective
leadership, leaders must also work to
develop psychological safety within
their team environment. Research has
shown that individuals perform more
interpersonally risky behaviours (such
as asking for help, admitting mistakes or
ignorance, suggesting improvements or
taking initiative) when they are confident
these will be taken in the right spirit
and not harm their self-image, status or
career. 26, 27,
Furthermore, psychological safety has been positively
associated with learning behaviours,32
which is in turn conducive to continuous
learning in an ever-changing and
While leaders have perhaps the most
significant impact in establishing
psychological safety, 34 it is not an
easy task: leaders must also hold the
tension between creating safety while
upholding performance. Nevertheless,
how leaders support and encourage
their teams in the face of failure sets
a salient example. If a leader adopts
a defensive or punitive stance, team
members are less likely to feel that
it is safe or worthwhile to speak up,
compared to a leader who welcomes
questions, suggestions or challenges.35
Leaders need to demonstrate that
they are accessible to their followers,
model openness and vulnerability, and
in the face of failure will displace blame
with curiosity, solicit input, and reward
innovative thinking and ideas.36
In an increasingly complex and dynamic
environment, successful organisational
transformations are not the result of
positional leaders dictating and pushing
through their own agenda, but the
outcome of leaders-as-hosts creating
conditions that encourage and energise
people to contribute to and grow from the
transformation process. In other words,
it is about “doing change with people
rather than doing change to them”.37
Successful organisational leadership
is about knowing how to co-create
a vision with others, build emotional
alignment between people and the
organisational agenda, establish co-ownership of organisational strategies,
shape organisational culture and shared
values, and provide motivation and
inspiration to the entire organisation.38
The increasing complexity and
interconnectedness of challenges
will demand collaboration across
organisational and sectoral boundaries.
Leaders need to work collaboratively
across boundaries, with a whole-of-government mindset that focuses on
collective stewardship of Singapore’s
interests, even if they supersede
organisational or personal goals. This calls
for a willingness to lead or follow, to best
ensure national objectives are reached.
Not only must leaders internalise this
identity of collective leadership, but they
must also role model it and promote it
in their organisations, create alignment
with broader mission, vision and values,
while sharing the bigger picture with their
people and clarifying their place within it.
Successful organisational transformations are the
outcome of leaders-as-hosts creating conditions that
encourage and energise people to contribute to and grow from the
FROM DEVELOPING POSITIONAL LEADERS TO
BUILDING LEADERSHIP CAPABILITIES THROUGHOUT
THE ORGANISATION: RECENT APPROACHES
To promote leadership behaviours
throughout an organisation beyond
those in positional authority, the scope of
leadership development must broaden.
Leadership development interventions
have traditionally focused on equipping
high potential officers and existing
leaders for leadership positions. Given the
increasingly complex and novel nature
of leadership challenges, harnessing
collective talent across teams and
organisations requires all staff to step
up as leaders when needed, based on
their unique competencies. Hence,
the intrapersonal and interpersonal
competencies that apply to positional
leaders could also be relevant to others
in the organisation, while positional
leaders have the additional role of
nurturing their people and creating the
conditions for leadership to emerge
Positional leaders have the
additional role of nurturing their
people and creating the conditions
for leadership to emerge in others.
This perspective highlights the significance
of three broad trends in leadership
development that have gained momentum
in recent years:
1. Integrating different avenues for
developing leadership, leveraging
data and technology
The 70:20:10 model has been widely
used to guide leadership development,
with 70% of development occurring
through on-the-job assignments, 20%
through working with and learning
from other people, and 10% through
formal programmes. The ratios may
vary from person to person, depending
on their specific developmental needs
and career stage.39 Nonetheless, the
70:20:10 model offers a convenient
shorthand for thinking about the different
avenues for developing the leadership
competencies described above.
Leadership development can be
maximised when different types
of developmental experiences are
integrated in a thoughtful manner,
rather than pursued in isolation.
Challenging job assignments can
trigger learning as they require
individuals to build up competencies
to meet the demands of a new role.
Particularly during the first 6 to 12
months, when new leaders are more
aware of their developmental needs
and more eager to develop themselves,
attending relevant formal programmes
can help close competency gaps;
and practising these competencies
on a day-to-day basis will further
build expertise.40, 41, 42 Colleagues and
peers can further catalyse learning
by providing guidance, advice and
feedback. They may also serve as
social support to help leaders to
benefit from challenging assignments
without feeling overwhelmed.43 Thus,
a leadership development approach
integrating learning from on-the-job
assignments, formal programmes,
and other people, can increase the
developmental value that a leader
extracts from a job assignment, because
of the complementary and mutually
reinforcing effects of learning from
these different avenues.
Leveraging data and technology could
make the integration of learning from
these different avenues even more
efficient and impactful. For instance,
data on the experience, strengths and
developmental needs of an individual
could be used to determine the job
assignment that would be most
beneficial at a particular stage in
that leader’s career. Developmental
programmes could be conducted
virtually and interspersed with on-the-job experiences; digital learning
resources could be accessible anytime
and anywhere on a just-in-time
basis; algorithms could be used to
recommend learning resources that
are most relevant; and virtual support
networks could be readily formed with
relevant others regardless of their
geographical locations. As technology
advances, there will be other ways to
better integrate learning from different
avenues in future.
Leadership development can be
maximised when different types
of developmental experiences are
integrated in a thoughtful manner,
rather than pursued in isolation.
LEADERSHIP TRANSFORMATION IN THE SINGAPORE PUBLIC SERVICE
The Singapore Public Service is driving leadership transformation and development
across different career stages, as well as in leadership teams within and across
agencies. This involves supporting leaders to ‘Know, Grow and Contribute’, by
raising leaders’ self-awareness, implementing competency-based development
and deploying leaders for optimal impact.
Public officers in middle-manager and higher positions complete a 360-exercise
based on the Leadership Competency Framework (LCF) for the Singapore
Public Service, to derive a better understanding of their leadership at work from
feedback. This is followed by individual or team-based coaching. The LCF identifies
specific intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies, as well as contextual
understanding, required of Singapore’s Public Service leaders.
The Civil Service College (CSC) offers leadership milestone programmes catering
to the public sector leadership life cycle, as officers develop from individual
contributors and middle managers to senior leaders (up to Chief Executive/
Deputy Secretary levels). Participation is timed to match each officer’s transition
to leadership roles. Each programme’s curriculum is being mapped to the LCF
to ensure that leadership development efforts target the competencies most
important for the Singapore Public Service.
CSC has also started experimenting with restructuring
some leadership programmes to better incorporate
learning experiences from work (the 70%) into
formal programme sessions (the 10%) and vice
versa. For support networks, coaching and peer
learning groups (the 20%) are offered as part of
the milestone programmes.
A dedicated mobile learning app lets participants
access curated, bite-size learning modules for
just-in-time learning. Examples of these include
the Directors’ Developmental Experience and
the Leading Transformation in a Disruptive
World programme, which aim to support leaders
in leadership transition and team-based work
2. Encouraging individuals to be
active designers of their own
Traditionally, individuals have been
relatively passive consumers of leadership
development interventions. They attend
leadership development programmes
where the curriculum has been curated
for them, networks of peers are created
to support them, and developmental
experiences assigned to them.
Although the organisation can and
should do its part to support leadership
development, individuals can be more
proactive in managing their own
development and building up habits of
learning from their own experience, so
that the learning is much more suited
to their unique needs. Adults learn best
when the learning is perceived to be
relevant and practical in helping with
real-life situations.44, 45
Individuals can be active designers of
their own development in different ways.
For example, they could co-create their
leadership development curriculum, be
more proactive in identifying suitable
developmental avenues, or take the
initiative to build their own support
network—and some of these experiences
and resources could be from outside
the work context as well, offering a
SELF-DIRECTED AND EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING IN THE LEADERSHIP MILESTONE PROGRAMMES
CSC’s leadership milestone programmes
include protected time to pursue self-directed learning, and white spaces in which
participants decide on the scope, format,
and speakers by tapping on collective
wisdom or connections for their learning
as a cohort. There are also pick-and-mix
segments where participants decide what
content would be most relevant to them (as
guided by data from their 360-exercises).
Finally, participants choose the scopes of
their capstone projects for meaningful
In the senior-level milestone programmes
(i.e., the Senior Management Programme and
the Leaders in Administration Programme),
participants experiment with and act on
initiatives that may be useful and impactful
to the Public Service as a system. At
the junior level (i.e., the Foundation
Course), the project initiates
participants’ experience of
navigating the system to bring
forward and materialise an
idea, with a greater focus on
learning through the process
instead of achieving results.
3. Leaders playing a more active
role in developing other leaders
An important source of learning for
many leaders is their own supervisor,
and organisations could do more to
encourage their leaders to grow other
leaders.46 Within their team, leaders can
catalyse and support their team members’
development by assigning and designing
challenging work experiences; helping
them to identify learning opportunities
and set personal learning goals for work
assignments; encouraging them to
develop new competencies that would
enable them to better contribute to the
organisation; helping them to identify
situations where they can apply their new
competencies; teaching them important
3 lessons; providing trust and autonomy
and support; offering timely feedback
on their behaviours; and providing
affirmation when the new competencies
are displayed effectively.47
In addition, leaders can serve as coaches
or mentors to the next generation of
leaders in the organisation. This builds
greater leadership capability throughout
the organisation, in terms of not only
leadership competencies but also
leadership ethos. This can also build the
leaders’ own leadership effectiveness by
prompting reflections of what leadership
means to them, consolidating what they
have learnt from their own leadership
experience, and honing their skills in
communicating with others. Thus, leaders
building leaders could raise the level of
leadership in the entire organisation.
LEADERS BUILDING LEADERS IN THE SINGAPORE PUBLIC SERVICE
Since leadership is learnt largely by learning from others, there has been a renewed
emphasis on the role leaders play in shaping other leaders.
In the Singapore Public Service, supervisors are expected to care for, develop and inspire
staff. This includes regularly providing staff with constructive and timely feedback on
learning/performance and guidance for longer-term career development. Within CSC’s
leadership milestone programmes, senior public sector leaders serve as Programme
Mentors. Acting as leadership role models, they guide younger leaders, and share their
knowledge and experiences at briefings and dialogues.
CSC also offers coaching and mentoring workshops, as well as the ‘Leaders Building
Leaders’ (LBL) onboarding workshops, to help foster a Public Service-wide culture of
leaders growing other leaders in a more agile and sustainable way. The LBL approach
identifies, develops and deploys experienced middle managers, known as ‘Learning
Guides’, to develop first-time managers within their organisations through small group
blended learning. Plans to pilot this approach with more senior levels of leadership (e.g.,
Heads of Functions) are in progress.
The Singapore Public Service must
remain responsive and adaptive to the
ever-changing context that it operates
in, which in turn means that our
approach to leadership and leadership
development must be equally adaptive.
How organisations view leadership has
evolved with changing expectations on
positional leaders, with leaders expected
to develop new competencies and
display new behaviours.
As a result, we have placed greater focus
on leadership development that engages
with a larger talent base in the Public
Service, and that integrates different
avenues of leadership development,
leveraging technology and data, self-directed learning, and leaders developing
other leaders. Leaders themselves must
manage the tension of performing
and learning in the flow of work and
when to play the role of ‘hero’ or ‘host’,
depending on circumstances.
This shift will not happen overnight. Just
like the leaders we hope to develop,
we will have to learn from experience,
adapt and be agile in our innovations,
and harness collective efforts towards
the common cause of developing future-ready leaders in the Singapore Public
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