Failing Public Sector Leadership?

English: Sir Winston Churchill.

Recently the Institute of Leadership and Management reported: “Employees have lost faith in public sector leaders, while many senior managers are looking to leave their organisation” (read more).

It’s a sad indictment for sector leadership but also, perhaps only indicative of the broader picture right across political and business leadership today? It’s certainly one that is destined to cause some frantic turning in graves by people like Sir Winston Churchill and his like.

Leadership failure is cited as one reason for this lack of morale, with a fifth (23%) pointing to a lack of leadership within their organisation. Almost half (47%) added that they don’t believe that their leaders deliver on their promises…(Source ILM)

Yes, these are “stark findings” and ones which I tend to agree with. I’m convinced a major causation factor in this relates to many of the methods we employ to select the ‘leaders’ of today. That and the speed at which many of them rise to high levels of ‘leadership’, with little or no experience of what it is they are actually responsible for leading.

Is Leadership Born or Built? In his book, “Executive Instinct,” Nigel Nicholson of the London Business School suggests that there may be a leadership gene — that some people are just driven to be in charge. But the University of Michigan’s Noel Tichy — in his book “The Leadership Engine” — declares that leadership style and abilities emerge from experience…(Washington Post)

There are myriad academic, theoretical and rhetorical arguments around the roots of great leadership; the most common question that often arises from these is – are good leaders born or made?

Simplistic assumptions, from either side of the argument, rarely help anyone to understand the reasons behind our leadership and management failures. Do certain personality traits make people better-suited to leadership roles, or do characteristics of the situation make it more likely that certain people will take charge?

It is important to see ‘leadership’ in terms of functions to be performed in helping groups to grow and to operate productively, not in terms of qualities inherent in certain persons…Kenneth Benne

It is said that; “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them” however; according to a recent article in The Daily Mail, the born not made theory appears to have been reinforced. “…a new study claims to have proven the theory that great leaders such as Sir Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher are all born – not made…” (read more).

Despite all the theory around what exactly makes a great leader, much of that theory rarely seems to transcend into the realities of personal perceptions and/or experiences. Certainly not in my experience.

From those years of personal experience, it seems to me that today, very few sector ‘leaders’ have much experience of the actual ‘service delivery’ they are responsible for leading. So who is at fault here? The selection systems or those actually appointed to leadership roles in the first place? Surly it must be a combination of both?

Many different leadership theories have emerged over the years, and can mostly be classified into one of eight major types (see here). Some leadership ‘experts’ and ‘observers’ believe that leadership can be trained and I would (in part) subscribe to that theory. But training’ isn’t just about learning theory in a classroom and I subscribe to the theory that; “True leaders are made, not born, and they are not made as much by others as by themselves” (Bennis).

James G. Clawson, Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and author of the Washington Post article made some interesting observations on the subject. Ones that I’m mostly in agreement with.

Clawson highlighted the fact that; “leadership is about managing energy, first in yourself and then in those around you.” I agree with the important factor here in that; “this definition implies that unless you are deeply committed to an outcome that others can engage in and understand, no amount of teaching will make you a leader.”

He went on to point out that, to a certain extent, the qualities of an organisation (or lack of them) are mostly immaterial, just so long as you have the right caliber of employees in your organisation. And, “no amount of teaching will make you a leader.”

Deep commitment implies clarity of vision — because leadership implies the question, “To what end?” A lack of vision is one of the two main reasons for a lack of leadership in the world…(Clawson)

In Clawson’s experience (and mine) – “most people are not clear about what they are trying to do; and getting rich off the backs of others, by the way, is not very motivating to everyone else.” I have to say that during my working life, I’ve been far happier (and productive) following the ‘natural’ leaders, as opposed to the ‘trained’ ones!

Until we see ‘leaders’ capable of showing greater (more genuine) interest in what it is they are responsible for leading, I don’t expect much will ever change. Those who lead our country, our organisations and commerce need to show more interest in the service they’re responsible for delivering, the people they lead and the ‘customers’ they serve. And never forget the interests and welfare of those you employ providing that service or commodity.

Too many who lead us need to stifle their far too obvious levels of personal interest. If your only desire is high salary and speedy ascension to high levels of management, is the term ‘leadership’ really applicable to you? I don’t think those your responsible for leading would agree with you if you said yes.

These traits should be at the very bottom of anyone’s priorities on their way to the top. They must all be prepared to learn about (and fully experience) more of what it is they aspire to manage and lead, on their way to the top. Then and only then, will they be truly fit to realise the possibility of becoming real leaders!


  1. Benne, K. D. (1948). “Leaders Are Made, Not Born.” Childhood Education 24.5: 203-208.
  2. Bennis, W. (1989). Why leaders can’t lead (pp. 118-120). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  3. Cherry, K. “Leadership Theories: The 8 Major Leadership Theories” ( Psychology): accessed 30-Nov-2013

3 thoughts on “Failing Public Sector Leadership?

  1. Great article Dave. You’ve struck the heart of the problem succinctly. With particular reference to Leadership in policing I was impressed with the Times article by Lord Dear who essentially observed that the job had plenty of managers, all too few real leaders. Worth a second read…

    Not so long ago misconduct by a senior police officer was rare and newsworthy. Not Now.

    Too many top-rank officers are in trouble in the courts and serious doubts are being cast about the trustworthiness of the service at all levels – the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 disturbances, Plebgate, phone-hacking, Hillsborough, the apparent politicisation of the Police Federation and so on. Certainly the police can point to falling crime rates and great success in preventing further terrorist attacks since 7/7, but their response too often appears to be disconnected from what the public expect.

    The basic problem is leadership. The service has created, trained and promoted to its top ranks managers, rather than leaders. The roots of this go deep, certainly to a decision taken at the Police Staff College in the early 1990s to drop the focus on leadership on the grounds that it was “divisive and elitist” and concentrate instead on management. The police, like much of the public sector, remain preoccupied with the management ethic, ignoring the words of Viscount Slim p a noted leader in both the army and the commercial world – that “managers are necessary, leaders are essential”.

    The result is a service that is too risk averse, frequently process driven and displays all the defensive attitudes of the besieged. Of course there are notable exceptions, but the picture among the senior ranks overall is depressing and getting worse.

    Faced with this crisis in leadership, the Home Secretary is proposing that we import people of calibre from the business world and abroad, rather than simply promoting from within. Policemen such as Bill Bratton who ran the New York and Los Angeles police departments, could be made chief constables and businessmen could join at superintendent level.

    It carries risks but maybe it’s worth a shot given the circumstances. It is important that foreign officers come from countries with similar common-law legal systems, such as Australia, New Zealand and the US. There are many examples of successful individuals who might be tempted. Well-qualified men and women frequently move around different sectors in industry and commerce, often with great success. So why not within the police?

    But I do have one big concern. Few police forces abroad combine in one single body – as happens in the UK – such a wide range of responsibilities such as for common crime, counter-terrrorism, protection of high-risk individuals and crowd control, and all by a largely unarmed workforce. Get it wrong by appointing the wrong individual to a top job, and there is a real risk that the resulting furore could kill off fast-track recruitment, an idea whose time has come.

    The police service needs to attract its fair share of top-quality graduates from Russell Group universities, who have all the essential qualities of integrity, common sense, resilience – and the ability to lead. Yet a career in the police service does not figure as an option for high-flying graduates. The service is still seen as a blue-collar occupation even though if offers variety, challenges and an opportunity to change society for the better.

    The problem was recognised in the reports by Tom Winsor, now the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, whose aim is to change the service into a white-collar profession. The establishment of a College of Policing, an equivalent to the royal colleges that champion the other professions, to identify and promote best practice is a good move, but everything will depend on attracting and retaining the best talent available.

    We need an officer corps. The majority should carry on climbing the ranks as happens now, but we also need an annual intake of 250 or more graduates who should be groomed for leadership. The Home Office’s suggestion of 80 graduates is too little to reach the critical mass necessary to transform the service.

    Standards should be demanding; training rigorous; underachievement should lead to culling. All of this is standard in the Armed Forces and the big corporations. It should not be anathema to accelerate these entrants so they reach the rank of chief inspector or superintendent by the age of 30 or so. It happens in the army. Experience on the street is essential, but not for an unrealistically long time, and ranks could be skipped.

    Diehards on the service will oppose this, but they have no alternative other than more or the same and look where that has led us.

    A two tier system is a good bet for the future. But it will take at least eight years before the new generation of leaders can begin to make itself felt within the police service. The Government is taking a gamble with its idea of bringing in outside talent now. But with the pressing shortage of first-rate candidates for the highest ranks of the police, it’s a gamble that we will probably have to take.

    Lord Dear was Chief Constable of the West Midlands from 1985 to 1990 and Her Majesry’s Inspector of Constabulary from 1990 to 1997.


    1. Thanks for your in depth comments Steve. As you know from other posts on my blog, I’ve believed for some time that the methods used for selecting ‘leaders’ (as opposed to managers) in policing is flawed. It must be, if not the service woul have better leaders.

      I’ve bee convinced for some time now; far too many in police ‘leadership’ have too much self-interest and not enough passion for the service being delivered and/or the job at hand. Until those responsible for selecting, training and developing service ‘leaders’ realise this, and do something about it, I fear little will change!


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