Nurturing: A New Form of Public Service Leadership
The complexity of today’s issues demands a new way for government leaders to solve problems. Sharath Jeevan suggests the technocratic model has its merits but also its limitations. Instead, a broader, more inclusive approach is required that draws on the experiences of many individuals to craft solutions for a diverse population.
If there is one lesson the pandemic has taught us, it is this: if you want to make a real difference to people’s lives, there is no better place than being a public sector leader. Ultimately it was government action that helped us find a way out, both by marshalling the resources of the state and by providing a lead for business.
However, if you are a government leader today, the nature of the problems facing citizens and government employees can feel overwhelming and even intractable. Even in developed countries such as the United States, large numbers of public sector employees have left, often citing workload, accountability pressures, and burnout. Similar trends are evident across many frontline services within the broader context of “The Great Resignation”, where swaths of the workforce have adapted to working from home, or flexible shifts, with the benefits of reduced commutes and more family time to balance against reduced services during the pandemic ranging from childcare to elderly care.
But there may be a way out of this bind, and it relates to how we lead in public service. The truth is that the mental models we have developed to conceptualise leadership in public service are stuck in the past. They are too instrumental, too focused on issuing objectives and achieving narrow tasks. Directives, work plans, and budgets — with the associated rewards and sanctions — have been the main tools we have tried to use to lead delivery, change, and even innovation. We need to think differently.
To understand why these mental models are in need of updating, we must understand the shifting nature of government work.
Limits of the Technocratic Approach
The most significant effect has been a shift from “kind” problems to “wicked” ones. Kind problems can be understood as those which, although they may not be simple or straightforward, do have a stable technical solution. Examples include putting a man on the moon, building the correct number of wind turbines to power a town, or achieving the right heat resistance for a new asphalt road.
“Wicked” problems, by contrast, are deeply human, multi-faceted, and (by necessity) messy in nature. They defy technocratic solutions and can never be fully “solved”. Instead, we can only hope to make a deeper “dent” in wicked problems over time. Problems that include a strong wicked element include global issues such as climate change and war, as well as domestic issues such as tackling homelessness or addressing racial injustice.
For many of us who started our careers some time ago, the main premium was on our skills as a technocrat. We probably had to pass a brutally competitive civil service entrance examination. Our “problem-solving” abilities were seen as paramount. This deeply ingrained technocratic mental model of work, however, makes a key assumption: it assumes that the problems we face in government service are predominantly kind. Yet the biggest problems we are facing in government today increasingly seem wicked.
How Nurturing Unlocks Potential
In the face of wicked problems, we need to develop new ways of thinking and, in particular, new ways of leading. In a fast-moving world, this is an effort that we cannot afford to delay. In response, I have developed the “nurturing” model of leadership.
This can best be understood through the framework of its three most important elements:
Authenticity: leaders must help people to become the best versions of themselves, not just to emulate someone else. That means seeing the potential in many people, not just a few at the top. This attitude broadens the skillsets within an organisation and empowers the individual to deploy creativity and initiative in the face of wicked problems.
Connection: leaders can play a critical role in helping employees to stay in line with their broader mission if they help them to connect with the organisation’s purpose and with their colleagues. Helping people at all levels of the organisation to build peer networks to support each other provides resilience in the system, builds teamship, and allows closer collaboration across specialisations.
Excellence: nurturing means helping others to develop new insights and relationships, not just to improve their technical skills. Teams should be encouraged to focus on asking the right questions at the right time. Critical to achieving this is knowing when they can add value — and when to pass on to the next nurturer. This way, the nurturing model creates relational networks of employees, not just a series of individuals given specific tasks within a top-down framework.
In my book, Intrinsic: A Manifesto to Reignite Our Inner Drive (Endeavour, 2021), I share compelling evidence from across sectors that nurturing can unlock potential in ways that other forms of leadership cannot. For example, high-potential academics are more likely to win Nobel Prizes if their supervisors exhibited nurturing behaviours. This was even the case when the supervisors themselves were Nobel Prize winners.
By building the capabilities of our team members while treating them with new levels of kindness and respect, we can build civil services and public sector organisations full of motivated, engaged employees capable of exhibiting the flexibility, sensitivity, and nuance that wicked problems require.
A Nurturing Journey Starts With Frank Dialogue
It takes a real commitment to build a nurturing culture in an organisation, particularly in government. This commitment can take place at the level of a team, a department, or a whole public service entity.
Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all nurturing culture. A carefully curated “guided journey” supports senior government leaders to define and create the key aspects of that culture, and also helps them to put that into practice. This includes developing the nurturing capabilities of senior and middle leadership levels across the relevant organisation, and deeply embedding these into day-to-day ways of working, culture, and systems.
While a nurturing culture can be created across a whole division or organisation, there is also a great deal that individual leaders can do with individual employees. A good start is to create a “safe space” that allows a leader to deeply understand the motivational direction of the employee, in order to be a truly effective nurturer. In partnership with the Chandler Institute of Governance, we have been running workshops to create such safe spaces in both Punjab, India and Kenya (in partnership with Emerging Public Leaders, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organisation that provides public service fellowship in Africa).
A leader openly sharing his or her experience and views can be a transformational experience. The PEDAL framework shown below provides a structure for having this conversation.
PEDAL Framework to Advance
How has your perspective and thinking about career success changed as you have progressed through your career?
What have you learned are your core strengths and motivators as a leader?
What kind of impact do you want to make in the next phase of your career? How is it different from your last career phase?
What assumptions and mental models have you found most useful through your career? Which ones did you need to change or adjust?
What mechanisms have you created to ensure ongoing learning and development for you as a leader?
As an adjunct, leaders should also address their experience of nurturing: were there a few key nurturers/mentors in their career who were particularly influential? What did they do? How do they see their own role now in nurturing others?
Old Ways of Leadership are Designed for Kind Problems
Besides the positive case for the benefits of the nurturing model, we must also acknowledge that pre-existing leadership models are simply not fit for the sort of problems with which we now have to wrestle. Traditionally, public service leaders have had three leadership styles at their disposal.
The first is management by decree. This is often the dominant form in public service organisations. It has led to command-and-control cultures where the assumption is that telling employees what to do is the best way forward. This can work for kind problems. However, wicked problems, because of their complexity and often fast-moving nature, require much deeper motivation and engagement from staff.
The second is mentoring. This is the “Let me show you how I’ve done this before” method. Mentoring has many rigorously proven benefits, but it only works if the nature of the problem your team member is facing is the same as you faced in your career. Given the wicked nature of work today, this copy-and-paste approach is less likely to be helpful.
Third, there is coaching. This can be a powerful tool. However, the challenge with coaching — at least in its pure form — is that it assumes that the role of the leader is to unlock the latent skills of the employee who can then be left to get on with the job indefinitely. Wicked problems are ones that defy technocratic answers. This places serious limits on how far coaching can help.
In a Wicked World, Standing Still is Fatal
The world has moved on. It is growing more interconnected and more socially conscious. Developing nations’ economic success is creating the capacity and the public demand to begin addressing the domestic wicked problems of social cohesion, purpose, and sustainability. Internationally, the challenges of population growth, climate change, and the threat of future pandemics represent a challenging series of cross-border wicked problems.
In response, it has never been more important to develop nurturing capabilities in government. The traditional models of management, mentoring, and coaching have their roles and strengths, particularly in relation to kind problems. However, to be successful in government, we will need to acknowledge their shortcomings and embrace the more powerful alternative.
Deeper forms of nurturing, as we have seen, can be developed both at the level of whole organisations or divisions, and at the individual level as leaders develop a nurturing culture in their teams. The first start is for leaders to have a deeper discussion with their team members to build greater mutual understanding.
Creating any kind of cultural and motivational change is rarely easy. However, there is a huge promise: more fulfilling work for those involved, and an even deeper impact on public service. It is a wicked world out there, but with the right nurturing leaders, we can all help to make it a better place to live.
Sharath Jeevan OBE is one of the world’s leading experts on intrinsic motivation, direction, and potential. He supports governments, corporations, universities, and nonprofit organisations all over the world to build motivating cultures, navigate leadership direction, and unleash individual and organisational potential. Sharath is a CIG Fellow and the author of “Intrinsic: A Manifesto to Reignite Our Inner Drive” (Endeavour, 2021). Please email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.intrinsic-labs.com to find out more about him and his work.