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Public Service Leadership: Will it Really Make a Difference?

April 07 2015 - by Joan H. Underwood, CLP's Regional Project Manager

A few weeks ago, I ran into a childhood friend whom I hadn’t seen in over thirty years.  Well, the chance meeting led to an invitation to lunch where I met her husband and a number of their friends.  After a quick round of introductions, the conversation quickly turned to what we each did – or used to do – for a living. It turns out that all the other members of the gathering had worked in the private sector, and some were on second careers as entrepreneurs having retired from a private sector job.  When I explained that I was the Regional Project Manager for the Caribbean Leadership Project and then explained the Project’s vision and mission.  I can’t remember which of my new acquaintances was the first to express scepticism; however, I do know that once expressed, it soon proved to be a majority opinion.  Specifically, persons wondered out loud whether investing in leadership development programming would really make a difference in the efficiency and effectiveness of the public service.

The discussion with my new circle of friends resonated in my mind for several days.  One of the primary reasons was the background of the cynics.  Here was a group of professionals who along with their respective firms had benefitted significantly from investments in their own professional development.  Why then was it so hard for them to accept that a comparable investment in permanent secretaries and other senior public officials throughout the Caribbean could lead to national and regional economic growth and development?

cynicismActually, their response was not unprecedented.  I’ve encountered cynics – including senior officials in the public service.  The arguments advanced by such persons essentially hinge on the conviction that the inhibitors of change exceed the existing forces for change.  Specific comments include the following:

“The culture in the public service doesn’t support people who want to make a difference.”

“No real change can take place unless you do something about the politicians.”

“The compensation in the public service isn’t good enough to attract or retain quality workers who could really make a difference.”

“Without the appropriate human resource management systems and the means for holding persons accountable for their performance – or lack thereof - productivity in the public sector will never improve.”

While I was mulling over these thoughts, three things happened.  Firstly, I came across a Gordon Draper paper titled “Strengthening Public Service Leadership Development: Perspectives from the Developing World”.  Secondly, news coming out of Singapore informed the world that Lee Kuan Yew had passed.  Thirdly, I had the opportunity to meet and interact with Dr. Peter Blair Henry, Dean of New York University’s Stern School of Business.

Draper’s 2002 paper chronicles the experiences of diverse Commonwealth countries including South Africa, Malaysia, Uganda, Singapore, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Canada, the United Kingdom, Jamaica, Australia, Saint Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Samoa.  What led all these countries which vary in size, culture, locus of control and so many other variables to the shared conviction that investing in the development of public service leaders was a necessary – if not sufficient – condition for national development? And why has the conviction persisted over the past two decades in the face of what could be described as mixed results?

During the past week, the international media recounted leadership lessons as part of the eulogizing of the man credited with orchestrating Singapore’s transformation from third world to first world status in a single generation.  One of the stories that caught my interest was a CNN article highlighting the following insights from the book, Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World:

  • Governance is first and foremost about results.
  • Superior performance requires superior leadership.
  • The acid test is performance – not promises.

In contemplating the mixed fortunes of the numerous countries which had explored leadership development in the public sector as the pathway to economic development, and in considering Lee Kuan Yew’s perspective on what accounted for his country’s success, and wondering whether the cadre of public service leaders emerging from CLP’s Leadership Development Programme would prove the sceptics wrong, I was encouraged by the proposition advanced by Dr. Henry.  As detailed in his book Third World Lessons For First World Growth – Turn-Around and as he outlined during the recently held Caribbean Economic Forum hosted by the Barbados Central Bank, Discipline + Clarity = Trust.  Dr. Henry postulates that the seemingly impossible can be made possible when leaders leverage discipline and clarity to earn the trust of their people.

So, after careful reflection, I have reaffirmed my belief that by diligently exercising disciplined leadership and displaying clarity of purpose, our public sector leaders can earn the trust of citizens throughout the Caribbean as they deliver improved performance and hold themselves accountable to delivering promised results. What about you?  Do you believe that investing in leadership development in the public service can and will make a difference? Why/why not?