Leadership at a Time of Crisis

Five key qualities are demanded of civil servants at a time of crisis, argues Professor Peter Shergold, a distinguished public service veteran and Senior Visiting Fellow at the Civil Service College.

Date Posted

7 Jan 2009


Issue 6, 14 Jul 2009

For civil servants, crises come in various guises. Often they are political, born of the heady swirl of public policy debate, governance and individual intrigue played out in the harsh glare of the media spotlight. Sometimes they take the form of cyclones or hurricanes, raging forest fires or rising floods. Unfortunately, in the modern era, crises can also come unexpectedly and brutally in the form of a terrorist attack.

To a significant extent, public perceptions of the capability of governments, and of the capacity of the civil servants who support them, are forged in the crucible of disaster. The faltering response to Hurricane Katrina, as much as an unpopular war in Iraq, undermined support for the presidency of George W. Bush.

On occasion, crises are more profound and long-term in their nature. The global financial collapse, and the worldwide economic recession that has followed, represents just such a moment. For Singapore, whose extraordinary prosperity has been founded on globalisation, the implications are particularly confronting. As Singapore’s export markets plummet, and property prices slump, the challenges to government will increase. The repatriation of large numbers of overseas workers will afford some protection, but there can be no doubt that unemployment will rise and the pressure on social services increase.

Economic downturn—of a dimension, depth and length that was unforeseen— will call for new responses. Around the world, it will be a testing time for governments and for the civil servants who serve them. It will demand public administrations with innovative ideas, responsive to new directions and committed to their effective implementation.

What are the qualities of leadership that will be called for at such a time? My reflections are informed, in part, by my readings; in large measure, they reflect my own experience during the five years I was the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in Canberra, and in particular my involvement in the Australian government’s response to the Asian tsunami, the Bali and Jakarta bombings and Queensland’s Cyclone Larry.


As I look back on such events, I have come to identify five essential qualities that are required of civil servants at a time of crisis. Some were clear at the time, while others have become apparent to me only with the wisdom of hindsight. A number of these characteristics I have already written about.1-9 Others were articulated for the first time in a leadership chat held as part of the Governance and Leadership Programme10 dialogue during my visit to the Singapore Civil Service College. My views have been informed and modified by the comments and questions that arose in that engaging encounter.

The first quality is collegiality. The great challenges of contemporary public policy—from the immediacy of economic crisis to the prospect of long-term environmental catastrophe—inevitably cross the constrictive structures of government administration. Indeed, a hallmark of the response to crisis is the need to ensure that central, line and operational agencies are working harmoniously. Bureaucratic territoriality reduces timeliness, complicates process and weakens collective ownership of decisions.

Collegiality is a culture of cooperative creativity, not an excuse for drawn-out process.

Of course, the qualities of teamwork (empathic listening, treating all participants with respect and ensuring that a diversity of views and perspectives are considered) can actually serve to impede the decisive action called for at a time of crisis. This must be avoided. Speed is essential. The goal is to work openly together, across horizontal demarcations, in the search for the best whole-ofgovernment outcomes.

Teamwork, especially when it is underpinned by the adrenaline that accompanies crisis, can generate innovation. While shared experience can ensure that past mistakes are not repeated, its primary purpose is to identify new approaches for the future. That is where the structured interplay of different ideas can prove its worth. A cross-government, team-based approach should produce outcomes greater than the sum of its organisational parts. Collegiality is a culture of cooperative creativity, not an excuse for drawn-out process.

Execution is the second essential leadership quality required of civil servants. Once government has made its decisions, it is the job of its public administrators to deliver them with vigour and commitment. A brilliant policy, poorly executed, is probably far more damaging to governments than having no policy at all. That is why I placed much greater emphasis on project management skills when I led the Australian Public Service. It is also the reason I set up a Cabinet Implementation Unit in the Prime Minister’s Department to oversee and report on the manner in which policy decisions were being delivered.

The ever-present danger is that new approaches are embraced and then discarded before they have had sufficient chance to work.

The third leadership quality on which I set high store is persistence. Ministers love to announce new initiatives. Civil servants enjoy mastering the latest acronyms. Training courses like to exhibit their cutting-edge credentials by showing familiarity with the latest mantras of management gurus.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of this. Better to have civil servants understand that ongoing organisational change and political ambiguity is an inherent feature of their working environment than to have them believe that the goal of “best practice” can be reached and turned into a comforting status quo—especially at a time of crisis, the dimensions and directions of which are never precisely known. The ever-present danger, however, is that new approaches are embraced and then discarded before they have had sufficient chance to work.

The good civil servant has the resilience to overcome administrative obstacles and to extract every last dollar of value from the policy hand they have been given to play. Persistence in the face of adversity is a quality that serves leaders particularly well at a time when the exigencies of crisis management twist and turn the normal processes of government. Thought and planning need to be balanced with action and implementation. Civil service is as much perspiration as inspiration.

A fourth quality, and one whose significance I have only slowly come to appreciate, is authenticity. During the two decades I was an Australian “mandarin”, the role changed significantly. The quasi-monopoly which characterised the working relationship between Secretaries (or Director- Generals) and their Ministers a generation ago has been transformed. The Westminster tradition has been made over. Ministers now appoint their own politically-sympathetic advisors. The lobbying of industry, unions and professional organisations has become more skilled. Not-for-profit organisations are now more important as contracted deliverers of government services, a development which (on balance) has probably increased the persuasiveness of their advocacy. Policy think-tanks have emerged. In short, the making and outsourcing of public policy implementation has become increasingly competitive.

The civil service requires leaders who have the good sense and emotional intelligence to bring their complete self to the development and delivery of public policy.

Exciting opportunities are presented by the emergence of “network governance”. Civil servants need to collaborate with a growing array of state actors. They need to be able to negotiate, with goodwill, in an environment of asymmetrical power (for the civil service remains a centrally positioned, wellresourced and highly influential player). The situation demands well-honed communication and facilitation skills, leaders who are able and willing to manage relationships rather than simply ensure compliance with contracts.

I now appreciate that collaborative leadership requires something more. Extolling the values of work-life balance, I failed to recognise adequately the important relationship between the two spheres and the manner in which it could define the quality of personal leadership. Civil servants have whole lives: they are parents and community volunteers, with wide-ranging hobbies, interests and enthusiasms. They are an integral part of the networks that create civil society.

Far too often the experience that they have gained outside the civil service workplace is inadequately applied to their management behaviours within it. The value of “life” goes unrecognised even by themselves. Many times have I seen civil servants talk about the rising cost of aged care, the inadequate provision of mental health services or the moralesapping impact of unemployment without ever explicitly recognising the realworld knowledge that they have of these issues. My view is that when the going gets tough, authenticity is vital. The civil service requires leaders who have the good sense and the emotional intelligence to bring their complete self to the development and delivery of public policy. Evidence-based decisionmaking is not just a matter of book learning, Internet searching or formal training. It means using one’s own life to imagine standing in the shoes of others.

Finally, the civil service requires leaders who want to be civil servants. Pride in vocation is important. It means understanding (and conveying to others) the value of maintaining traditional values within high-performing public administrations. Crises are nearly always accompanied by increased political pressure. At such times, there is a need to preserve values such as public accountability, the honesty and integrity of decision-making, appointments based upon merit and always acting with propriety within the law.

Civil service is a tough job. It is not easy to give advice fearlessly at a time of crisis when the political stakes are rising, or to deliver policy decisions uncomplainingly when that advice has not been accepted. It takes a clear understanding of the foundations of democratic government if one is to serve faithfully elected officials with whose views one might privately disagree.

The ability of civil service leaders to shape public policy comes at a personal cost. To a considerable extent, their influence is wielded behind closed doors. Their public voice needs to be carefully modulated. It requires leaders able to serve successive ministers with equal dedication. For all these reasons, the civil service is not a job for everyone.

Yet, at moments of crisis—when the articulation of national interest will often be contested, but when the failure to act decisively will always prove fatal—civil service has its distinctive rewards. It is a job that has meaning and purpose. It involves the provision of public value, not shareholder gain, with benefits delivered to citizens, not consumers. How well it is done affects, to a lesser or greater extent, the future well-being of society. At a time of crisis, the burdens of responsibility are heavy but the opportunities for satisfaction are greater still.


Peter Shergold is the Macquarie Group Foundation Professor at the Centre for Social Impact in Australia. From 1988 to 2008, he was a senior public servant in the Australian Public Service, including being the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet from 2003 to 2008. He is also a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Civil Service College, Singapore.


  1. Shergold, P., “Connecting Government: Whole of Government Responses to Australia’s Policy Challenges”, Canberra Bulletin of Public Administration 112 (2004): 11-14.
  2. Shergold, P., “Plan and Deliver – The New Culture”, Defence February 2005.
  3. Shergold, P., “Regeneration: New Structures, New Leaders, New Traditions”, Australian Journal of Public Administration 64 (2005): 3-6.
  4. Shergold, P., “Managing the Modern Public Service”, The Sydney Papers 18 (2006): 207-216.
  5. Shergold, P., “Implementing Policy”, Leadership Excellence 24 (2007): 20.
  6. Shergold, P., “Driving Change to Bring About Better Implementation and Delivery” in John Wanna, ed., Improving Implementation: Organisational Change and Project Management (Canberra, Australia: ANU E Press, 2007).
  7. Shergold, P., “Governing Through Collaboration” in Janine O’Flynn and John Wanna, eds., Collaborative Governance: A New Era of Public Policy in Australia (Canberra, Australia: ANU E Press, 2008).
  8. Shergold, P., “Tsunami Brings out Public Service’s Best”, Canberra Sunday Times, January 16, 2005.
  9. Shergold, P., “Coping with Crisis”, Public Administration Today 5 (2005): 43-48.
  10. The Governance and Leadership Programme, organised by the Institute of Policy Development, Civil Service College, is an intensive milestone programme for officers who are already Directors or Heads-of-Departments. The objective of the Programme is to allow participants to gain a deeper insight to Singapore’s fundamental realities and principles of governance and how they play an integral part in the formulation and implementation of public policies, including public consultation and policy communication. Participants discuss issues on public sector excellence, including leadership and management in the public service.

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