9 September 2022

PMC boss right to question some leadership styles

| Chris Johnson
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Australian Government building

APS leaders would do well to heed Professor Davis’ call. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Glyn Davis is smack on the money when he says any leader ruled by an organisational chart is no great leader at all.

If we can get past the irony of the most senior public servant in the land telling other public servants not to get caught up in hierarchy, there’s a valuable message in his words.

For far too long (forever), the public service has been bogged down by hierarchical structures and stifling restrictions that inhibit creative thinking and genuine staff engagement.

The culture actually prevents things from getting done in some agencies. Good work sometimes progresses at a snail’s pace and can end up on the back burner all because the fear of stepping out of line prevails.

Empowering staff is the true mark of leadership.

There are some (many) inspiring leaders in the Australian Public Service, as well as in state and territory services across the country.

But there are also too many control freaks who insist on living and dying by the pecking order of an org chart.

“If regardless of formal lines, you can share ideas and you can empower others, and you can draw on diversity of opinion and experience to achieve a shared goal, then you are exactly the type of leader we need in the Australian Public Service,” the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet said in his recent speech to the Institute of Public Administration Australia.

READ ALSO If you rely on an org chart to demand attention, you’re not much of a leader, says PMC boss

This has been such a concern that a whole independent review into APS hierarchies and classifications has just been completed.

It has recommended widespread changes to the levels of appointment in the sector. The review panel has called for a more even structure that will foster a change in culture.

The APS is having a hard time swallowing that pill and is not likely to accept and adopt the key recommendations anytime soon – perpetuating the very concern Professor Davis has raised.

The panel’s chair Professor Heather Smith told Region that changing those structural classifications was the review’s number one take-home message for the APS.

“We stand by the recommendation. It is the first recommendation and it is there for a reason,” she said.

“The APS hasn’t changed its structure in 30 years. You have a workforce that is demanding more flexibility and in order to attract and keep good people in today’s environment, you need to offer that flexibility.”

READ ALSO Public service classifications to remain untouched, for now

Professor Davis described the whole mindset of strictly hierarchical structure as an ‘organisation straight-jacket’. That description is as clever as it is correct.

Framing leadership in terms of taking an abstract goal with a mission and tasks and making it happen by cooperating with others is equally insightful.

“I know we organise ourselves into neat structures into agencies with clear departmental hierarchies, and apparently all of the flows of accountability. But we all know that’s not our entire lived reality,” he said.

Perhaps Professor Davis can use his top-dog status merged with his call for more cooperative leadership to ‘encourage’ the whole APS to get serious about the hierarchical recommendations from the independent review.

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I don’t think humans will ever be able to organise large, worthwhile endeavours at scale with out some degree of vertical hierarchy and horizontal specialisation.

But there is something truly odd in the way certain departments operate – eg SES spending more time fighting each other and ridiculing their own staff than motivating their teams and managing projects in a practical way.

It’s the attitudes, the culture and the personal qualities of some individuals that can be the problem. The key offenders should be sent to special de-egoing camps then required to work in customer service for two or three years, either at McDonalds or KFC.

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