Are there different challenges associated with leading in the public versus private sector? If so, do those differences alter the skills and behaviors required for good leadership? How might these differences impact leader development?

A CCL study of 1,500 U.S. federal government civilian leaders and a sample of more than 500 private-sector business leaders who attended leadership programs over the past five years sought to answer these questions. The researchers found that leaders from both sectors name similar leadership challenges and prioritize them in parallel for the most part, but the unique setting and context found in the public sector leads to subtle, but very real and noteworthy differences and noteworthy differences.

Challenges Government Leaders Business Leaders
#1 Managing and Motivating Subordinates Personal Leadership
#2 Personal Leadership Managing and Motivating Subordinates
#3 Organizational Operations & Performance Organizational Operations & Performance
#4 Talent Management Balancing Multiple Work Priorities
#5 Balancing Multiple Work Priorities Boundary Spanning
#6 Boundary Spanning Talent Management
#7 Influencing Influencing


A deeper look at the data shows that the environment of government, especially the constitutional structure and financially constrained context of the U.S. federal government, does appear to change some of the challenges faced by those leaders. For example, motivating employees, fiscal concerns and dealing with problem employees weighed much more heavily on government leaders than on their business-sector counterparts.

Do these differences alter how public sector leaders should behave, the skills they need, and the development necessary to meet those challenges? Probably, say John Ferguson, Peter Roynane and Mike Rybecki, the authors of the study and related white paper:

“Without the benefit of significant financial incentives and quick merit promotions, motivating government employees may require leaders to incorporate different strategies to inspire superior performance. Without access to additional resources, even when unit performance or challenges merit those investments, leaders may need to collaborate even more intently and effectively with peers to accomplish the mission. And once these skills and behaviors are identified, how can government instill them in leaders through systemic development, especially in the resource-constrained environment that is causing some of these challenges in the first place?”

Read more about the findings in Public Sector Challenges: Are They Different and Does It Matter?

Through our experience working with over 55,000 leaders from federal agencies and by using the world’s largest, confidential 360-degree assessment database, CCL knows how to help and has the tools to help leaders grow. CCL tailors programs to government-sector employees through its Government Practice. Other leadership programs are GSA-approved for individual development. Books (print and digital), webinars and e-courses are available as single items, bulk purchases, or packaged with In-house Solutions that allow you to facilitate leadership development experiences for your organization.

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