Developing Public Sector Leaders

Self-awareness and shared responsibility are key to the cultivation of holistic leadership in public organisations today.

Date Posted

8 Jan 2010


Issue 8, 14 Aug 2010


There is a growing recognition that what we have traditionally deemed as leadership development — the focus on developing individuals as effective leaders — is now better regarded as leader development. The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) has defined leader development as "the expansion of a person's capacity to be effective in leadership roles and processes".1 The emphasis is on building individual knowledge, skills and abilities associated with leadership roles, such as capabilities related to self-management (e.g., developing self-awareness, self-regulation and self-motivation), social effectiveness (e.g., maintaining relationships with others, building effective teams), as well as the accomplishment of work within organisational systems (e.g., management skills, technical or task related knowledge and skills, influencing and implementing change and innovation).1,2

In comparison, leadership development goes beyond focusing on the development of individuals as leaders, to include the wider context in which leadership is desired. It is defined as "the expansion of the organisation's capacity to enact the basic leadership tasks needed for collective work: setting direction, creating alignment, and maintaining commitment".1

This distinction in thinking between leader development and leadership development can be attributed to the increasingly complex and unpredictable challenges faced by leaders and organisations in current times, and the realisation that it would take more than just a group of highly effective individual leaders to navigate through these challenges. There is recognition that shared or collective leadership capacities are required across organisations, where people come together to make sense and create shared meaning of their work.3,4 In this regard, leadership development would include facilitating the process of establishing these connections among individuals, groups and organisations, as well as encouraging "relational dialogue"4 as a source of leadership. Such developmental interventions would allow individuals, groups and organisations to acknowledge and enhance their understanding of the interdependencies that exist among them, and to explore effective ways of working together to address shared, complex challenges.

Despite these nuanced distinctions, both approaches are not mutually exclusive.2 Indeed, individual leader development could well serve to lay the foundation of personal maturity and behavioural change necessary in order for broader organisational leadership to flourish.


Leader Development Begins with the "Self"

A key aspect of leader development involves the discovery and awareness of individual attributes and behaviours, such as preferences, strengths, limitations, beliefs, values and motivations, to form a clearer and more accurate model of oneself.

While leaders may act with good intentions, they need to be sensitive to how their behaviours may be perceived by others.

Beyond that, it is important for individuals to develop awareness of the impact of their personal attributes and behaviours on the people around them. This is particularly relevant to a leader's development, as positive intentions do not necessarily lead to positive impact. We tend to judge ourselves by our intentions, but are likely to judge others by the impact of their behaviours on us. Hence, while leaders may act with good intentions, they need to be sensitive to how their behaviours may be perceived by others. By relating their personal attributes and behaviours to the workplace, leaders can also develop a better appreciation of their current impact on their environment as leaders and how to further enhance their effectiveness.

Self-Regulation and Adaptability are Important Aspects of Leader Development

There is a common misperception that developing as a leader means shedding all shortcomings and attempting to change natural preferences in order to adopt the styles and behaviours of good role models. Instead, the appropriate strategy is to learn to regulate one's behaviours, to adapt flexibly and effectively to manage roles, tasks and challenges at hand as well as to expand one's repertoire of behaviours to suit the context. It would include leveraging on one's strengths, developing and practising new behaviours and finding ways to ameliorate, but not necessarily eliminate, one's shortcomings.

Related to this is the concept of contextual leadership where there is no one-size-fits-all formula for good leadership, and that different leadership qualities are called for in different settings.5 Thus, a great leader in one situation may not necessarily be a great leader in a different situation; qualities and skills that have proved useful in a past context may not be most appropriate in the present or future. Dotlich et al6 also noted from a recent study that "context leaders" are three times more effective than "content leaders" (those who draw mainly from their knowledge to add value), as they are able to contribute by recognising resources in their environment and to use them effectively. Hence, while self-regulation and adaptability are vital in pursuing personal development, they are also important leadership qualities. Effective leaders are generally able to adapt their leadership styles to suit the context, and are able to develop new leadership behaviours to cope with situations in which their usual approach may not work well.

Different leadership qualities are called for in different settings.

In practice, it is useful for leaders to gain awareness of and to understand the match between their personal capacities and the unique demands of the environment in which they are operating in, so that they can better learn to leverage on their existing qualities or consider the development of new behaviours to enhance their overall leadership effectiveness.

Leader Development Revolves Around Whole Leadership

The notion of whole leadership presented by Dotlich et al6 provides a useful framework to understand the qualities that are desired in today's successful leaders. Whole leadership is about providing clear direction and strategy (Head Leadership), empathising with and developing others (Heart Leadership) and being prepared to take risks on the right actions, guided by a clear sense of values (Guts Leadership).6 This holistic approach is particularly important when dealing with challenges in a constantly evolving and complex environment.

Organisations tend to overemphasise Head Leadership in identifying and developing leadership potential. While such qualities may allow the leader to demonstrate competence in analysing issues, making decisions and addressing problems, there is increasing recognition that other qualities related to Heart and Guts Leadership are equally important. For instance, leaders need to be able to stay connected with people within and across organisations, demonstrate support and empathy, balance conflicting needs between stakeholders, and make difficult but necessary decisions for the greater good in the face of ambiguous and complex challenges. These qualities are of particular relevance to leaders in the public service, who are entrusted with tremendous responsibility not only on behalf of their agencies but public interests at large.

Organisations tend to overemphasise Head Leadership in identifying and developing leadership potential.

Following the principle of contextual leadership, leaders should adapt their use of head, heart and guts leadership according to the context (e.g., some situations may require more heart leadership than head leadership). Indeed, whole leadership does not mean using all three sets of qualities all the time; it is about drawing upon the qualities that are most appropriate for a given situation. In practice, whole leadership can apply to every level of leadership within an organisation. Leadership programmes can also address the development of head, heart and guts, although the focus and intensity for each area would vary across the different organisation levels.7 Furthermore, while individual leaders may find themselves having natural preferences for certain aspects of whole leadership (e.g., being more of a Head than Heart leader), the key to development is in helping individuals uncover and enhance their capacities in all three aspects of their repertoire, and to avoid over-reliance on any one strength — which could ironically result in leadership derailment.6

Leaders develop best by undergoing a variety of experiences.

Leaders Develop Through a Variety of Experiences Often Beyond the Classroom

Traditional leadership development programmes often take place in the classroom, where content knowledge is shared and some opportunities provided for participants to practise within small groups in class. However, it is common to find individuals not following through with the newly learnt knowledge and skills once they return to the workplace, due to a variety of reasons. It may be difficult to bridge the gap between classroom lessons and the real workplace, or individuals may find it easier to stick with what has been working rather than trying out untested new approaches even if they may be more effective in the long run.

Over the years, there has been a shift in approach towards the development of leaders: it is increasingly about creating opportunities for and helping people learn from their work, rather than taking people away from their work to learn.8,9 This emphasis on learning from work-related experience has led to a greater call for development to be integrated into the daily work of the organisation, so as to encourage greater relevance, learner motivation and sustainability of developmental changes.

Leadership lessons are best learnt when one's development experience is reinforced by other experiences, and when individuals are able to work on change through several development experiences somewhat simultaneously.8 A recent research study, undertaken jointly by the Center for Creative Leadership, the Singapore Civil Service College and the Public Service Division has also shown that leaders develop best by undergoing a variety of experiences that take place within the workplace (e.g., challenging assignments, developmental relationships and adverse situations).10 Development opportunities also have to be created intentionally and clearly linked to specific developmental goals and needs, instead of relying on random learning to take place.2

Learning through on-job and varied experiences can therefore be more intentionally built into leadership programmes to provide for semi-structured learning in real situations. In practice, it could include action learning projects, which provide opportunities for a "continuous process of learning and reflection, supported by colleagues, with a corresponding emphasis on getting things done".2 Peer networking and sharing sessions across organisations can also encourage ongoing feedback and support, as well as the sharing of good practices and leadership experiences. In addition, coaching and mentoring experiences can be provided to facilitate leaders' personal growth and learning, and also allow them to enhance their own coaching and mentoring skills in order to support the learning and development of other younger leaders.

Leaders Hold Primary Responsibility for Their Own Development Though Some of the Responsibility is Shared with Their Organisations

Successful developmental efforts rely a lot on the individual's self-direction and intrinsic motivation; no one can force a change of behaviour if there is fundamental unwillingness to do so; any externally imposed stimulus to change (e.g., incentives or dictate) will not be sustainable without a fundamental belief in the need for behavioural change. People must have the desire to change their behaviours for the better and feel confident that they can do so.

Individuals are also often in the best position to engage in self-reflection and to appreciate the insights on their strengths and limitations, and to know what developmental strategies work best for themselves.

Nonetheless, individuals operate as part of an open system in real life. Their behaviours have an impact on others, and can be influenced by the response of others. Well-intentioned behavioural change can sometimes fail if faced with obstacles and resistance from the external environment (e.g., resistance from colleagues, limitations within or imposed by the organisation), often beyond an individual's control. Leaders in development can only thrive with ongoing support from their organisations and colleagues.

More specifically, senior management and supervisors can support leader development by offering intentional and meaningful developmental experiences (e.g., challenging work assignments, informal learning opportunities), extending support and encouragement on individuals' developmental plans and initiatives, as well as giving constructive and ongoing feedback for their development. Research has shown that senior management and supervisors can have a significant lasting impact on their staff's learning and development, through the developmental relationships that they offer.10

Organisations can also provide support for leadership development by being receptive to leadership development trends, by encouraging a culture of networking and by practising collective leadership across boundaries in dealing with shared challenges.

Development is an Ongoing Process That Occurs Over an Extended Period of Time

Development does not take place overnight or as a result of a one-off event or intervention; leadership development is not an event so much as a process over time.8 As such, there needs to be a devotion of conscious effort to creating and building on developmental experiences over an extended period of time.

It is important to note, however, that time and experience alone does not guarantee development and growth. Even motivated individuals need to work through their development agenda at their own pace. They can also benefit from understanding their personal learning styles in order to maximise their own learning from developmental experiences. Sustainable and intentional behavioural change does not always occur in a systematic manner, but tends to be largely discontinuous, arising from a series of discoveries or emergent conditions.11 This relates to the "sleeper effect", in which a sustainable behavioural change can occur long after a change intervention and may be misperceived as unrelated to the change effort.11


Current leadership development practices in the Singapore Public Service can be further enhanced. In particular, the focus on developing whole leadership and the expansion of organisational leadership capacities as part of leadership development are areas that require more attention and concerted efforts to build into current practices. There is also a need to continue to deepen our understanding of the unique environment in which the leaders of the Singapore Public Service operate in. This includes gaining clarity on our leadership brand through discussing and creating shared awareness of public service core values and aligning these values to the leadership development curriculum. Greater supervisor involvement in leadership programmes need to be instilled, so as to enhance the developmental support available to emerging leaders. The Singapore Civil Service College has embarked on new initiatives to provide a greater variety of developmental experiences for our leaders (e.g., the use of action learning projects) and to reinforce learning experiences over an extended period of time (e.g., integrating regular check-in sessions into a leadership programme) (see box story on "Leadership Development in the Singapore Public Service). In time, the College hopes to extend such initiatives to other leadership programmes within the public service to bring about greater learning and growth for all levels and categories of public service leaders.

Leadership Development in the Singapore Public Service

A Shared Responsibility for Leadership Development

The Civil Service College's (CSC) leadership programmes often encourage individuals to learn and take ownership of the process in which they engage in self-reflection, seek ongoing feedback, set personal developmental goals, as well as plan and pursue their own development. At the same time, they are provided with ongoing support to experiment and practice new behaviours in a safe learning environment to build confidence and a positive attitude towards driving their personal development.

Read More


Goh Phek Suan is a Consultant Psychologist in the Centre for Leadership Development in the Civil Service College (CSC). The Centre serves to strengthen and build up the various leadership development work undertaken by CSC, as well as to promote greater collaborations on leadership assessment, research and development work for the benefit of the public service. Some examples of leadership development initiatives undertaken by CSC and its partners include the implementation of a development centre for Management Associates, the delivery of leadership modules within milestone programmes, the development of a CSC pool of coaches to support the roll-out of executive coaching within the public service, as well as the establishment of a conceptual blueprint to guide the design of leadership development curriculum for the public service.


  1. McCauley, C. D., and Van Velsor, E. (eds.), The Center for Creative Leadership handbook of leadership development 2nd ed (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004).
  2. Day, D. V., "Leadership Development: A Review in Context", Leadership Quarterly 11(2001): 581–613.
  3. Day, D. V. and Harrison, M. H., "A Multilevel, Identity-Based Approach to Leadership Development", Human Resource Management Review 17(2007): 360–373.
  4. Drath, W. H., "The Third Way: A New Source of Leadership", Leadership in Action 21(2001): 7–11.
  5. Nye, J. S., The powers to lead (USA: Oxford University Press, 2008).
  6. Dotlich, D. L., Cairo, P. C., and Rhinesmith, S. H., Head, heart and guts: How the world's best companies develop complete leaders (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006).
  7. "Leader Development Curriculum for the Singapore Civil Service College" (Mercer & Oliver Wyman, 2009).
  8. Moxley, R. S., and O'Connor Wilson, P., "A Systems Approach to Leadership Development" in C. D. McCauley, R. S. Moxley, & E. Van Velsor (eds.), The Center for Creative Leadership handbook of leadership development (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998): 217–241.
  9. Hernez-Broome, G., & Hughes, R. L., "Leadership Development: Past, Present, and Future", Human Resource Planning 27(2004): 24–32.
  10. Yip, J., & Wilson, M., "Developing Public Service Leaders in Singapore" (Singapore: Center for Creative Leadership, 2008)
  11. Boyatzis, R. E. (2006), "An Overview of Intentional Change from a Complexity Perspective", Journal of Management Development, 25(7): 607–623.

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