Public Sector Leadership and Governance

  • Raffaella Saporito
  • Alex TurriniEmail author
Living reference work entry

Public Sector Leadership: Definition

Since the publication of Weber’s Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (1922), the issue of how an individual might influence the behavior of others has been a major topic of research in the administrative and political sciences. However, the topic has experienced a discontinuous level of attention. Excepting a few eminent works – in particular, Selznick’s (1957) classic Leadership in Administration – the “publicness” of leadership has usually been referred to as political leadership, which is mainly performed by elected representatives in democratic regimes or authoritarian rulers in dictatorships. The consolidated belief that administrative leadership (i.e., public sector leadership) is not relevant was related to the assumption that public executives were overwhelmed and tied by external “forces” (i.e., political power and regulatory procedures) shaping public administration and its operation, leaving no discretional power or opportunity to change the status quo. Therefore, this lack of interest in public sector executives’ leadership styles was consistent with a traditional paradigm of public administration according to which elected representatives should decide and bureaucrats should execute: Any discretional power of public officials was framed more as a pathology than as an undeniable feature of public managers’ jobs.

According to Van Wart (2003), interest in leadership within an administration only resurged in the 1980s, in parallel to the transactional/transformational leadership debate. It reached its apex in the 1990s when public management studies had become a specific and autonomous field of research detached from the traditional public administration paradigm and business management studies. This new focus on leadership behaviors within administrations was also related to the widespread proliferation of public management reforms in Europe and the USA and to a general shift from managerialism to “leaderism.” Senior public officials started accruing greater responsibility and autonomy, increasing their decision-making power and potential to exercise their leadership in different ways and different settings. Only in this renewed context did public management theories welcome public sector leadership as a phenomenon worthy of study, and on these grounds, we define and investigate public sector leadership as the set of distinctive skills and behaviors public executives/senior officials adopt to change and reform public administration by achieving superior results and performances (Turrini and Valotti 2016).

Public Sector Leadership: Distinctive Skills and Behaviors

Despite the claim of New Public Management scholars that public administration should be similar to that of private companies, empirical studies continue to highlight the differences between the public and the private sector when analyzing concrete practices and the behavior of administrative leaders. The main differences are tied to several features of the public administration environment, such as the diverse goals public sector organizations must pursue, the complexity and ambiguity that public sector executives face when they solve “wicked” problems hand-in-hand with politicians, and the greater transparency, accountability, and level of formalization that executives must maintain when working within the public sector (Van Slyke and Alexander 2006).

These distinctive features of public sector organizations eventually impact the skills and behaviors public sector executives use to lead their employees (Perry et al. 2010). As a summary of the different portraits of public sector leaders that emerge from the literature, we could say that public sectors leaders must combine traditional intersectoral leadership skills with a set of skills specifically related to the publicness of their organizations. On one side, the main business-like leadership skills are consistent with the transformational leadership model; administrative leaders must build and communicate a clear vision to their teams, engage in planning and monitoring results and act as change agents supporting innovation. Above all, public managers foster motivation and ward off conflicts within teams by forming unique and personal relationships with each member of their staff, giving attention to staff needs and engendering a spirit of collaboration within the organization. In addition, their communication skills and ability to negotiate are excellent. These skills have been found to be positively and significantly related to employees’ job performance.

As previously stated, public sector leaders favor skills related to so-called transformative leadership over transactional ones (Trottier et al. 2008). In fact, administrative leaders have been labeled and portrayed as visionary, charismatic, inspirational, and authentic. Ethical leadership, a set of behaviors inspired by the values of integrity, neutrality, loyalty, and pursuit of the public interest, is the most peculiar type of leadership performed by public executives. For example, Downe et al. (2016) propose a series of case studies on nine local administrative districts in the United Kingdom. In each case, they underline the importance of demonstrating personal moral values rather than behaving according to formalized ethics codes, particularly when public officials must intervene to solve tangled public problems. Consistent with this portrait, Hassan (2015) distinguishes three fundamental attributes of effective leadership in the public domain: the ability to be a model for subordinates, the ability to treat people with equity, and the ability to actively manage ethical issues and clearly communicate high ethical standards.

Another important aspect of public sector leadership is “responsibility sharing.” Miao et al. (2013) highlight the importance of the public leader promoting employee empowerment, showing support to their staff, and encouraging them to take personal initiative and share the leader’s responsibility. This participatory leadership style impacts the affective and normative commitment of employees to the organization and enhances the emotional trust (“affective trust”) employees feel towards their leader.

Public Sector Leadership as Distributed Leadership

More recently, the debate concerning public sector leadership has focused on distributed leadership. In contrast to the image of a heroic and solitary leader, distributed leadership refers to a set of skills and behaviors collaboratively performed by more than one member of a group according to the needs of the context. Distributed leadership is the main emerging paradigm in fields like emergency and disaster response, public private partnership, and interorganizational management (Orazi et al. 2013). This leadership paradigm is emerging in public administration and governance studies and under different labels: public leadership, integrative leadership, collaborative leadership, and public network leadership (Turrini et al. 2010). In all these cases, leadership is framed as a driver and a condition of collaborative practice or as a collaborative practice itself.

The distributive leadership approach is consistent with a new public governance paradigm that calls for the development of new methods of portraying public administration efforts (Osborne 2006). The plurality of actors involved in the production of public value, the increasing fragmentation of administrative and economic power among different level of government (local, regional, central, federal, and international), the frequent involvement of private organizations in public service delivery, and the proliferation of private-public partnerships have reframed the notion of leadership, giving birth to a new form of public sector leadership emerging across organizational borders.

In all these cases, leadership skills are associated with integrated leadership capacities or to relational leadership skills. Effective leadership is mostly related to the ability to manage diversity within and across public sector organizations in terms of managing different educational backgrounds and professional experiences. Sun and Anderson (2011) complement this attitude with what they call “civic capacity,” which they define as the desire to be involved in social issues and the ability to seize social opportunities by becoming “social entrepreneurs.” In their framework, it seems that “civic connections” (i.e., the social capital that characterizes the internal and external relations of the leader) and “civic pragmatism” (i.e., the ability to translate social opportunities into reality using mechanisms of collaboration, governance, and accountability) result in higher levels of motivation and commitment within the workforce, favoring “personal empowerment and arousing a feeling of personal ownership” of the processes.

Public Sector Leadership: Impacts

Despite the growing attention to public leadership as an intersector and interorganizational phenomenon, the majority of studies addressing public leadership as an independent variable focus their attention more on the internal impacts of leaders’ work than the external ones. Among the most widespread impacts are variables related to staff, such as increased intrinsic or public service motivation, increased job satisfaction (defined as the “sense of pride and personal fulfillment that emerges from carrying out a specific job,” increased organizational commitment (affective, normative, and continuous), and an improved “speak up” attitude of employees, who feel able to express their opinions.

A growing body of literature is, however, addressing organizational impacts, such as the ability of the organization to achieve the objectives defined by its statute, overall staff participation in achieving company objectives, efficiency (i.e., the ability of the organization to efficiently accomplish tasks), and effectiveness (i.e., the ability to achieve formally set target performances). Other studies look at the organizational impacts of leadership by applying to the public context certain mediated constructs, such as innovation success (which concerns not just the process of generating new ideas or knowledge but also how they are applied to a specific public context), performance information use (i.e., the degree of the use of data on the efficiency, quality, and effectiveness of public services), organizational agility (the ability to perform activities in the shortest possible time), flexibility (the ability to adapt to change), organizational competence (the ability to achieve a set of organizational objectives), and, finally, reactivity (the ability to identify changes and exploit emerging opportunities).

When the independent variable, the construct of public leadership, explicitly refers to an integrative and collaborative process involving multiple stakeholders, the dependent variables are more outside-driven. Fitzgerald et al. (2012) demonstrate how distributed leadership among managerial and professional actors positively impacts the quality of public services in networks. The items used by the two authors to measure this variable are linked to the ability of the network to achieve the goals. These items include the presence within the network of elements like trust, collaboration, frequency of relationships, and mutual support among network members. Finally, the ability of the leader to influence the decision-making process within the group is used as a proxy of the adopted governance model.

Public Sector Leadership: Implications for the Practice

Whether leadership is a matter of nature or nurture is an unresolved question, but it is being investigated not only in scholarly research but also in executive education and practice. If public leaders are not born as such, what can be done to develop public leadership skills? A widespread answer to this question has been the burgeoning of so-called leadership frameworks conceived either as a set of idiosyncratic skills and behaviors necessary for executives working in public agencies or general frameworks outlined at the national level for central and local governmental bodies. For example, comparative studies on European senior civil service systems showed not only the wide diffusion of government leadership frameworks but also a convergent set of competencies. These competencies can be grouped into the following categories: inspiring, motivating, and managing the staff within the typical boundaries of civil service management (i.e., bureaucracy, red tape, low effective pay for performance, etc.), creating public value, delivering effective and measurable results, supporting and driving strategic decision-making to inform the policy process, leveraging the contributions of stakeholders, and co-producing opportunities. Leadership frameworks serve as referents for recruitment and selection processes and guide and inspire development and training policies for public managers.

At the same time, sector-specific features of leadership frameworks have relevant implications for the development of training programs by schools and universities. Research in this field highlights that when leadership programs are designed and imposed from the top down, the effect on leadership development is narrow. Once public executives are permitted to autonomously co-produce the programs, they develop leadership skills that could make them better managers and better at seizing and widening their career opportunities. However, the most effective way to build leadership skills in public sector managers and develop effective public sector leaders is still a neglected question and, thus, constitutes a promising field of research.



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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Government, Health and Not For Profit DivisionSDA Bocconi School of ManagementMilanItaly