Leadership Development in the Singapore Public Service

A ground-breaking research study on public sector leadership in Singapore highlights the importance of leadership impact and challenging work assignments on staff development and performance.

Date Posted

1 Nov 2008


Issue 5, 14 Nov 2008

The Singapore public sector has long since recognised the importance of top leadership capability as a key driver for organisational excellence and performance. In a continuing effort to understand how leaders best learn, grow and develop, a joint research study, “Lessons of Experience: Singapore Public Service”, was conducted in 2007.1

In this study, a total of 36 public sector leaders were interviewed by researchers from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). These interviewees ranged in seniority from Director, Chief Executive to Permanent Secretary, and came from a broad range of functions, across 12 ministries and 18 statutory boards. The interviews were analysed by a team of researchers from CCL and the Civil Service College, Singapore (CSC).

Two key themes were identified from the study. One highlighted the value of challenging work assignments to leadership learning. The other underlined the importance and impact that bosses, both “effective” ones as well as “bad” role models, have on the development of their staff, and how their impact may matter far more than they themselves realise.


Work assignments, such as a task, posting, or promotion where the leader has to strive hard in order to achieve the desired outcomes, were found to motivate learning and change in the leader, with 92% of the interviewees citing work assignments as significant or memorable learning events. In contrast, coursework and training was cited by only 11% of interviewees as a source of leadership learning.

The developmental lessons derived from work experience varied according to the type of work assignments. Specifically, experiencing an increase in scope (for example, first supervisory responsibility) enabled a leader to learn more about managing and motivating staff. For leaders who undergo job rotations, they also gained a greater awareness of their abilities, preferences, limitations and preferred leadership styles. It was found that public sector leaders learnt to operate and network effectively across different agencies—a core competency in public sector work by being immersed in boundary-spanning work regardless of whether the boundaries were within the organisation, between organisations, or with external stakeholders.

The developmental lessons derived from work experience varied according to the type of work assignments.

The significance of work assignments on leadership learning suggests a degree of initiative and reflection amongst Singapore public sector leaders. The new situations they found themselves in encompassed uncertainty and challenges in which they had to experiment and take risks in trying to adapt and cope with an unfamiliar situation. The more successful leaders were able to rise to the occasion and go on to learn from these experiences.


Apart from learning through challenging work assignments, bosses and superiors were found to have an enduring influence on leadership learning, with 53% of interviewees noting the lasting impact their bosses and superiors had on them.

Interviewees commonly described their superiors as performing one of four broad roles: they were catalysts, positive role models, teachers or negative role models. The finding suggests that learning does not only occur with the demonstration of positive behaviours by bosses and superiors. Encounters with negative behaviours seem to trigger leadership learning as well.

From their experiences of bosses and superiors, interviewees learnt valuable lessons in accountability, as well as how to manage, develop and motivate staff. This suggests that behaviour modelling may be a key driver of leadership learning.



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Coursework and training appear to have had a lesser impact of leadership development compared to other forms of learning. Nonetheless, this does not imply that coursework is unimportant. Instead, there is now a stromg impetus to review the leadership development curriculum to ensure their effectiveness and impact, for instance, by including appropriate challenging assignments and more consciously structuring developmental relationship with bosses and superiors.

Leadership learning also appears to take place when leaders experience adverse situations, such as dealing with crises, recovering from mistakes, or encountering an ethical dilemma. A typical lesson cited by leaders who had gone through a crisis situation was how to manage stakeholders through a variety of formal and informal communication channels. However, since these crisis experiences tend to be spontaneously imposed by the environment, they are not within the control of the organisation or its leaders, and would thus be more difficult to structure into a leadership development curriculum, except perhaps in more static designs such as simulations, role play or interactive case studies.

Apart from identifying key event themes that led to leadership learning amongst the interviewees, the types of lessons learned by the leaders were also analysed. The lessons most frequently cited were those involving the need to deal with other people. Specifically, the top three relationship-based lessons cited by the interviewees were the ability to manage and motivate staff, develop staff, and manage stakeholders. Clearly, soft skills—interpersonal and social skills necessary to connect with people—are vital competencies in the public sector. A leadership development curriculum that emphasises relational leadership is likely to be important for the public sector.


The key findings suggest that the use of deployment through posting and job rotations can be an effective lever in leadership development. A clearer understanding of the potential challenges and associated lessons that different jobs may offer could enable better structuring of job postings to bring about maximal learning. Thus, it may be important to consider the timing and appropriateness of job postings in a leader's career so that the leader can gain the most out of work experiences.

The findings highlighted that bosses have a significant and lasting impact on their staff’s leadership development. Specifically, critical lessons on accountability, and managing and motivating staff are learnt through developmental relationships with bosses. As such, we need to leverage more on this in our leadership development programmes. This would entail education so that bosses are more aware of their impact and are consequently more deliberate in taking an active role in the leadership development of their direct reports. It would also mean helping bosses develop skills to faster positive relationships that will motivate, inspire, and develop their staff.

Critical lessons on accountability, and managing and motivating staff are learnt through developmental relationships with bosses.

From the perspective of leadership development programmes, the findings are compelling and suggest the need to focus more attention on how best to incorporate “challenging assignments” into the programmes so as to raise the effectiveness and relevance of coursework and training. The impact of bosses and the informal but significant roles they play for their subordinates also suggest that a greater emphasis on “leading and developing others” may be required in structured coursework and training.

Interviewed public sector leaders appear to have learnt best from tacit and on-the-job experiences. However, it is known that an individual’s willingness and motivation to learn plays an important role in development. Thus, generating a sense of ownership and accountability in leaders for their own development can facilitate the leadership learning process. At the same time, leaders may not be aware of how best to enhance their own development process in terms of leadership skills. Therefore, resources to aid self-development have to be developed.


The study has provided many insights into the leadership learning process, particularly in highlighting the value of challenging job assignments and the significant impact of bosses and superiors on staff. The challenge now is to structure and deliver these insights as learning experiences for current and future leaders. This will continue to be an on-going field of research, as the Singapore Public Service strives to understand how public sector leaders best learn, develop and perform.


Ong Perng Yih is a Senior Manager in CSC Consultants, a department within the Civil Service College which provides focused and in-depth consulting services in the areas of talent assessment, organisation, people development and leadership development, and interventions to help public sector agencies on their journey towards people and organisational excellence. Ms Ong was part of the research team which analysed the findings from the study.


  1. Yip, Jeffrey, and Wilson, Meena, Developing Public Service Leaders in Singapore (Singapore: Center for Creative Leadership and Civil Service College, 2008). Undertaken by the Civil Service College (CSC) and the Public Service Division in collaboration with CCL, the research study was initiated in July 2007 and modelled closely after the earlier research studies on lessons of experience undertaken by CCL in the US and elsewhere. For the full report, please see email
    Other recent reports by CCL include Key Events and Lessons for Managers in a Diverse Workforce (2003) by C. A. Douglas and Developmental Assignments: Creating Learning Experiences Without Changing Jobs (2006) by C. D. McCauley.

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