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Towards Strategic Leadership: Creating better public sector leaders through self-reflection

24 October 2018

News and media


Paul 't Hart and Robbie Macpherson

Taking public sector leaders out of their comfort zones to encourage self-reflection and thinking more broadly about issues is a key to improving their ability to lead.

That’s why ANZSOG’s Towards Strategic Leadership (TSL) program immerses participants for two weeks of intense analysis of themselves and their organisations, to develop the skills that will give them the courage and wisdom modern public sector leaders need.

This includes a unique ‘live case’ where participants spend a day consulting with stakeholders on a complex social problem before compiling their learning into a group presentation.

Participants in the 2018 program said they benefited from TSL’s unique focus on reflection and strategic thinking, and from learning how to integrate these habits into their leadership.

Program leaders Professor Paul ‘t Hart and Robbie Macpherson said TSL was designed to show public sector managers how to reach their leadership potential and deal with the challenges of the volatile public sector environment.

Professor ‘t Hart said that the program was designed for people who were ‘right on the cusp of entering or had recently entered’ senior executive roles.

“They are transitioning from the management of teams or programs to the management of entire sections or complex issues. At that level they need to delegate or trust more, you can’t simply be the smartest kid in the room,” he said.

“Leaders need to become a lot more self-aware and system aware and incorporate those practices into how they perform their roles.”

Mr Macpherson said that senior leaders needed to move beyond just having technical expertise in their field (which had often been their reason for career progression) and learn more generalist skills and how to work through others.

“It’s not about how smart you are but how much you can keep learning. Self-reflection and resilience are a big part of that.”

Reflecting on personal challenges

In 2018, the live case was a chance for participants to spend a day immersing themselves in the issue of youth crime in Victoria, a complex problem which has also become a hot-button political issue.

The group spent a day in Melbourne talking to police, public servants, crime statisticians, academics, local councilors and ethnic community representatives to get their different perspectives.

Youth crime in Victoria has been the subject of intense and ongoing media coverage since 2016, something which stakeholders said has inflated public perceptions of the size and scale of the issues.

Frank ‘off-the-record’ discussions gave the group insights into the challenges for governments trying to build relationships with ethnic communities, the varied roles police play, and the impact distorted media coverage has had on community relations.

In the evening, participants delivered their own presentations to the same stakeholders providing their analysis of how stakeholders can work more collaboratively through joint leadership to address youth crime issues.

Mr Macpherson said the live case was designed to break participants focus on their own area of policy and give them a new perspective.

“They realise that even though the content is different, the dynamics of the issue are remarkably similar to what they do. Usually it’s a case where you have a complex issue, lots of fragmentation and people not being able to align on purpose, and therefore a lack of progress on the issue,” he said.

“The live case allows them to think about leadership without the constraints of their own environment and their own system.”

WATCH: TSL participants Tom McGregor and Nicole Opie talk about the 2018 live case study.

Apply for the 2020 TSL program

Improving leadership skills

Victorian public servant Tom McGregor said TSL had given him a “better understanding of who I am as a leader and my strengths as well as some of my blind spots”.

The Director, Legal Services – Youth Justice, Victorian Department of Justice and Regulation, began his career in commercial law but left after a couple of years to join the public sector, in search of a job where he could make a more direct contribution to society.

“For a long time I had a conception about who I ‘need to be’ as a leader. After TSL, I think I’ll do a better job at appreciating who I currently am as a leader and being comfortable in my own skin, but also focusing on the elements of my leadership that need refining.”

Nicole Opie, Assistant Director Asset Planning Services, Victorian Department of Health and Human Services, said TSL had been an opportunity for self-development and to become a better public sector leader.

“When you are away from your workplace you can really focus and ‘invest in you’ and what you can then take back to the workplace,” she said.

“The key issue facing public servants like myself is the constant change we are experiencing, whether it is structural change within our own departments, or the changing environment we are working in with stakeholders. TSL provides frameworks.”

“TSL has a very diverse cohort of people from across Australia and New Zealand, each bringing their own experiences to the group. It has been great to get a fresh perspective from my peers and know that there are people experiencing the same issues.”

Teaching wisdom and courage

Professor ‘t Hart said that the TSL program was deliberately driven by its participants and focused on helping them build their own connections.

“The level of intimacy they can arrive at over the two weeks is pretty deep, and the networks they build across jurisdictions are very strong,” he said.

Mr Macpherson said that it could be ‘pretty lonely in these roles’ and that having trusted peers was valuable for support and accountability.

Public servants across the world are facing a fast-changing environment which will require new skills and understandings of leadership.

Mr Macpherson said that TSL taught participants to take a long-term view at a time when collective attention spans are getting shorter.

Professor ‘t Hart said that public servants were facing a loss of the natural authority of government, an increasingly volatile public mood, and the dilution of their power to communicate due to the rise of social media.

“On top of all this, globalisation means that the events that effect your world are happening a long way away and out of your control,” he said.

“We want to develop self-reflection, and for people to draw courage and ultimately wisdom from that. Because in this world it is fundamentally wisdom and courage that you need – because systems and processes aren’t going to do it for you.”

Apply for the 2020 Towards Strategic Leadership Program