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Tackling societal issues with a new vision on public leadership

The Leiden Leadership Centre (LLC) aims to connect science with practice when it comes to public leadership. The Centre, founded by, among others, Dr. Ben Kuipers and Prof. dr. Sandra Groeneveld, is collaborating with a number of organisations. A recent result was a research assignment for a new vision on public leadership at the behest of the Dutch Office for the Senior Civil Service, in Dutch: Bureau Algemene Bestuursdienst (ABD). In this article, we delve a bit deeper into the backgrounds of this research project, the added value for the LLC and the lessons that can be learned by other organisations from the essay that resulted from this assignment.

The question with which Bureau ABD approached the LLC was to set up a research project for a new view on public leadership. Groeneveld, professor Public Management: ‘The old vision from 2016 was also based on a collaboration with our Faculty in the persons of Nikol Hopman and Dr. Caspar van den Berg. Because so much is happening in government land, there was a demand from within the professional field to renew that vision earlier than planned. Bureau ABD asked us to find out in which manner the government is being managed and what type of leadership is needed to tackle large societal challenges.’

A broader view on leadership

Kuipers, Associate Professor at the Institute of Public Administration, adds: ‘It’s all about a broader view on leadership. The ABD oversees all the senior managers in the sector. The dilemma this target audience is having to deal with is that it is no longer simply about the individuals at the top, but more about the need to develop leadership deeper within organisations and that coincides with our vision. This dilemma not only addresses governmental organisations but also societal challenges that require leadership from not only the scope of formal managers, but that should also come from various layers within organisations.’

Corona crisis as example of a complicated societal challenge

When trying to solve complex societal challenges, the process requires more than just people standing at the top of the hierarchical ladder. Groeneveld uses a recent example to illustrate this. ‘We all saw what happened during the corona crisis. Initially, the power was centralised with leadership being directed from one single point: a high level. We can still vividly remember the press conferences held by Mark Rutte and Hugo de Jonge. That may have worked in the beginning, but when the immediate crisis was over, we were dealing with a long term complicated societal challenge. Companies had to be propped up, gearshifts were needed in all dimensions, not only medical but also in education, for example. It turned out it was not possible to manage this from a central point. We needed leadership from the community and lower government to address the problem.’ So, the message is that we no longer require leadership by the people at the top but rather by more people from within the organisation.

Leadership inward, upward and outward

How to manage leadership is one of the central themes from the essay ‘Anders kijken naar Publiek Leiderschap’ Reflecting on how employees can play a role in solving societal challenges. How can you promote this? How do you go about it? Dr. Joris van der Voet, Associate Professor at Public Administration, conducts research into public leadership. He participated in this research project.  

Van der Voet: ‘In our essay we address several points that can help other organisations think about leadership and leadership development. The situation and environment in which governments operate are becoming more and more complicated and are rather hectic. This asks for leadership, but also for reflection on the question of how you define leadership. It is not only about how you operate within your own organization, which we call inward leadership. But upward leadership is also needed, think of the politics of organisations operating on a different hierarchical level. Outward leadership is also necessary because the central government cannot solve everything on its own. Differentiating between inward-outward-upward leadership can also offer other organisations a valuable perspective for looking at leadership.’

Bridging Science and Practice

A collaboration such as this with the ABP is valuable for the LLC. Kuipers: ‘We would like to collaborate with the professional field to identify the dilemmas surrounding public leadership and define how we can collectively enter this learning process. To learn with and from each other, with us in the role of researchers and bridge between science and practice. We’re definitely looking for other forms of collaboration in which we can have an impact. It’s not for nothing that our slogan is: Advancing Public Leadership, together. In the future we will most certainly be looking to encompass other fields of expertise from within the University, think of leadership from a historic or linguistic perspective. Working together to better understand the complexity of leadership dilemmas in practice.’

Marjolein Voslamber, Director Management Development Rijk / Deputy Director General for Bureau ABD, on the cooperation with the Leiden Leadership Centre

  • What was the reason for this vision roadmap?

Bureau Algemene Bestuursdienst (Dutch Office for the Senior Civil Service - ABD) first presented a vision on public leadership in 2016. This vision was geared toward (senior) administrative managers within the Civil Service (the ABD) and served as a guideline for the recruitment, selection, and training of this target audience. Many ministries have also based their visions on leadership in our government-wide vision. The Central Governments and our vision on public leadership, however, are not set in stone, but are changing constantly. After five years, the ongoing developments on these two issues were reason for us to re-evaluate the vision on public leadership.

  • How have you experienced the collaboration with the University, and in particular the LLC?

The roadmap for our renewed vision on public leadership was made up of two tracks: a practice-based track resulting in the essay ‘Zoektocht naar publiek leiderschap’ written by Mark Frequin from ABD and an evidence-based research track by the Leiden Leadership Centre (Leiden University). In close collaboration with the researchers from the Leiden Leadership Centre (Leiden University), we have managed to tie these tracks together. This has resulted in the vision ‘Kompas voor publiek leiderschap – visie op wenselijke leiderschapsrichtingen’ and three research documents: a literature study, an empirical research report, and the essay ‘Anders kijken naar publiek leiderschap’. The scientific approach has provided a solid foundation for the vision.

  • What impact will the research findings have on the leadership development at Bureau ABD?

In the recruitment, selection, and training of (senior) administrative managers the Bureau Algemene Bestuursdienst is focussing more and more on the role that someone has and whether that role is suited to its surroundings. The research conducted by the Leiden Leadership Centre has enabled us to apply a multi-facetted perspective on public leadership. The research findings emphasised the importance of shared and staggered leadership, for example by having ‘the managing of leadership’ take on a central role as one of the most important leadership behaviours in the conduct of (senior) administrative leadership.

  • What will the second phase of this roadmap look like?

In 2021, we have completed the first phase of the vision roadmap. This year will be all about the follow-up. At Bureau Algemene Bestuursdienst we will start working on how to best apply the ‘Kompas voor publiek leiderschap’ and the research report by the Leiden Leadership Centre within our organisation. We are planning to design a programmatic approach entailing a number of actions. We are planning, for example, to incorporate the core issues of the ‘Kompas voor publiek leiderschap’ into our processes regarding the recruitment, selection, and training of (senior) administrative managers. We will also be continuing our collaborating with the Leiden Leadership Centre. The underlying thought is that our vision – and multi-facetted perspective – on public leadership will continue to evolve.

  • Would you recommend the collaboration to other organisations?

Our collaboration with the researchers of the Leiden Leadership Centre has helped us to describe a complex definition such as ‘public leadership’ more accurately and make it more manageable. Their way of looking from the outside in, the way they involved a broad target group of both managers and employees, and the different perspectives they used, have enriched our view of public leadership. This collaboration has enabled us to experience different ways of looking at leadership and keeps us on our toes.

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