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