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Private and not-for-profit organisations can learn from public sector leadership

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Jean Hartley is professor of public leadership at The Open University Business School and director of the Centre for Policing Research and Learning. Her most recent teaching project is a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), freely available on FutureLearn, called “An introduction to public leadership”

We live in a global culture that often praises private sector and complains about public leadership, but dig deeper and the origins of much leadership theory and practice lie in the actions of those who lead on behalf of the public interest.

Public leadership has always been an important source of ideas and practices for all sectors, whether private, voluntary, public or hybrid. This may seem a little surprising when we live in a global culture which often praises private sector leadership and complains about public leadership, but dig a little deeper and the origins of much current leadership theory and practice lie in the actions of those who aim or claim to lead on behalf of the public interest.

Classical Greek scholars, including Plato and Aristotle, thought hard about how city states should and could be led and how to develop those in charge, and Machiavelli advised on leadership development for Italian princes. In the 20th century, ideas about leadership surged forward on the basis of studies in the military. In the 1970s and onwards, the huge interest in transformational and transactional leadership originally derived from McGregor Burns’ study of elected politicians. Distributed leadership was first noticed and analysed in school settings.

So, what is happening in public leadership now which might be of interest to leaders everywhere and to HR managers who are tasked with finding or developing them? I have spent several months distilling the latest thinking on this subject, in part based on my own research, for a professional development project designed to help those who are in (or about to be in) public leadership roles.

What is public leadership?

Is it any different from other types of leadership? There are, of course, myriad definitions of leadership, but for now I want to define the generic concept as being concerned with “mobilising the attention, resources and practices of others towards particular goals, values or outcomes”. Public leadership is exercised by those who act on behalf of the public. It includes elected and appointed politicians, at local, devolved, national or international level; it includes professionals and public servants working in a leadership role, whether a ward nurse, a police officer, a chief executive of a local authority, or an environmental health professional; and it includes those who are active in public life who seek to mobilise change in governance and public services– advocates, campaigners, community leaders. These three groups each can contribute to shaping and changing public spaces, public debates and government and public services for good or ill.

So, for public leaders, attention has to be paid not just to leadership inside an organisation (a focus of much though not all private sector leadership research) but leadership beyond the organisation, working with partners, the public (or publics) and assessing the impact of their decisions and actions on the public sphere.

What is valuable for the public sphere?

In our recent work, we draw on leading-edge ideas about public value and interview its key thinkers. Developed by Mark Moore and John Benington, public value goes beyond the public interest because it recognises that there may not be a single public interest but a set of conflicting views and values from different stakeholders about what is valuable for society. Leaders are encouraged to make decisions based not only on what the public value (and are prepared to prioritise) but also what adds value to the public sphere. This alerts leaders to think about activities, and also outputs and outcomes. For example, in policing leadership, an emphasis on preventing (not just acting on) crime, increasing public confidence, and supporting a democratic society are important. In schools, creating confident life-long learners is an important public goal which goes beyond counting GCSE results.

How does public value changed leadership enactment?

A public value perspective encourages public leaders to exercise leadership not only with authority but also with legitimacy. On occasions this may involve leadership beyond authority (line management over subordinates), working in partnership with other agencies or the public. This requires a careful reading of the context and what is to be achieved. An example of this comes from our recent research on the police. Police officers are widely known for their “command and control” skills in leadership, but an interview with a chief constable illustrated a much more nuanced approach. Sometimes the use of leadership hierarchy is important, (e.g. in particular crises or public order situations), but at other times, leadership may be distributed across a team, and at other times, networked leadership involves trying to influence those who are themselves of similar or higher status where leadership legitimacy not just authority is particularly valuable. So ‘reading’ the context and thinking about public value are valuable leadership skills, along with having a repertoire of leadership behaviours.

Leadership lessons from politics?

I mentioned elected politicians earlier in this article, and it might seem counter-intuitive to try to learn about leadership from elected politicians. From research I have undertaken, we can learn from the more effective politicians’ understanding of and action about working with diverse interests in society, with the many and various publics that they encounter. If they exercise leadership well (there are some very good examples) they take account not only of those who voted for them, or those who agree with them, but try to build coalitions across varied groups and interests to achieve outcomes. They know that complete consensus is unlikely or impossible, but they aim to make decisions where people will accept the decision as being fair or at least fairly arrived at.

These ideas have been adapted for a different setting – understanding the value of political astuteness for public servants, whether working, for example, in health, policing, transport or government. Research I undertook, with colleagues, in the UK, Australia and New Zealand showed the value of political astuteness in their work (and my UK work also included leaders in private and voluntary sectors). Sometimes called ‘political savvy’ or ‘political nous’ or having ‘political antennae’, political astuteness is a set of skills, knowledge and judgements about the interests, goals and values of stakeholders and how to exercise leadership in ways which take account of diverse and competing interests among stakeholders.

Traditionally, leadership studies had assumed commonality of goals among leaders and those they are trying to influence, but the research on political astuteness shows that understanding and working with difference to try to construct coalitions to get things done for the organization is seen as valuable, particularly by more senior leaders. The research identified five key dimensions of skill which leaders use to create social and organizational outcomes: personal skills; interpersonal skills; reading people and situations; building alignment and alliances; and strategic direction and scanning. The research also showed that politically astute leadership behaviours have to be ethical and for public servants they must not be party political.

This article is centred on the work of those in public leadership, but don’t be fooled – the content is relevant across all industries and sectors. The issues are present in all sectors. Private firms working on corporate social responsibility may be interested in issues about the public sphere. Voluntary and private organizations working with public services need to understand what makes them tick. There is plenty here for everyone.

This article was first published by HR Magazine on 22 September 2016