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Christian Bason

Leadership. The secret formula of a successful public sector?

By April 7th 2009

On the afternoon of Monday, April 6th, in a small and rather dark auditorium at the Copenhagen Business School, Alexander Kroll from the University of Potsdam concluded that the term “leadership” is quite rare in public management. That theme came back to haunt me three times over the rest of that day.

First, it haunted me at the workshop. More precisely, a review Mr. Kroll conducted of more than 1.200 academic articles about New Public Management shows that only six percent of them mentions the word “leadership” at all. Now, that might, or might not, be a problem. As a British professor commented, perhaps the reason leadership didn’t pop up more often is that the review was limited to New Public Management — and many, if not all, academics in fact distinguish between leadership and management. If that was the explanation, we wouldn’t have much of a problem. Leadership could still be a central feature of public administration research.

Fun aside, I did get the feeling that we were dealing with a serious question. The workshop participants spent some time debating the leadership theme, and a Brasilian participant asked whether leadership didn’t have to do with a notion of moral authority rather than (administrative) position. For exactly that reason, leadership in the public sector might be suspect in itself. It is not the role of public employees to lead. Moral authority is the sole domain of politicians, not administrators. A scary thought, I believe. But true?

The second time leadership showed up was during my own presentation in the late afternoon. A U.S. professor asked about MindLab’s experience with successful cross-ministerial collaboration and innovation. What does it take? I humbly apologised for not being able to come up with a better suggestion than … leadership. He agreed and said he couldn’t come up with a better suggestion himself. So, perhaps leadership isn’t dangerous, but rather critical to the success of the public sector?

The third time leadership emerged as a theme that Monday was in the late evening, when I visited the blog of the newly established NESTA Lab, an organization focused on public sector innovation, much like MindLab. On their blog, director Rowena Young describes a lunchtime conversation with her new team about innovation leadership in the public sector, and what it would take to switch more managers on to public sector innovation. They decided on the following recommendation:

Start somewhere. Better to have lost in innovation than never have innovated before.

I couldn’t agree more. And maybe the same applies to leadership. Let’s get the secret out.

MindLab at the IRSPM conference at the Copenhagen Business School.
MindLab at the IRSPM conference at the Copenhagen Business School.

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