Government Leaders Need Specific Skills to Succeed

Do leaders in the public sector face different challenges than their private-sector counterparts? If so, do those differences alter the skills and behaviors required for good leadership? How might these differences impact leader development?

To answer these questions, our researchers studied 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 5 years. We found that leaders from both sectors name similar leadership challenges and prioritize them in parallel for the most part.

Top Challenges of Government & Business Leaders

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

However, the unique setting and context found in the public sector leads to subtle but very real and noteworthy differences.

A deeper look at the data shows that the government environment impacts some of the challenges its leaders face. In particular, many government leaders feel acute financial and constitutional constraints that may impact their ability to:

  • Motivate employees.
  • Navigate fiscal concerns.
  • Deal with problem employees.

Sometimes, fostering innovation in an environment with complex regulations is also challenging, but we believe that with the right culture, even traditional organizations can drive innovation successfully.

3 Skills Government Leaders Need to Succeed

These differences alter how public sector leaders should behave, the skills they need, and the development necessary to meet those challenges. When it comes to leading the government sector, we ranked 3 skills most critical for success:

  1. Leading employees — Agencies that seek to retain top talent often focus on leadership development programs, identifying high-potential talent, and making sure they have training and development opportunities that offer them a broad and deep foundation for moving forward within the organization.
  2. Change management — Developmental assignments are the linchpin for leaders with the confidence to manage change. Assignments that are outside of their primary technical area provide a different perspective. They can see how their technical area fits into the greater whole so they can better understand and manage change across the organization.
  3. Participative management — Government leaders who seek to remain in their own silo are doomed to obsolescence. 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. Participative management encourages the involvement of employees at all levels of the organization to create resources through relationships and organizational synergies.

Often, this includes increasing collaboration and communication across agency and departmental silos. It’s critical that government leaders develop the ability to collaborate across boundaries.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

We have decades of experience tailoring our leadership training programs for government-sector employees through our Government Practice. Learn more about our leadership programs that are GSA-approved for individual development.

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