Don’t forget ‘the why’

There’s been much written about 2020 and the challenges we all faced. In many ways it was a year in which the public sector thrived despite the fatigue, anxiety and ambiguity that existed.


2020 reminded me once again that leadership is a bit like a ‘jigsaw puzzle’. Good leaders have the nous to pick the right piece at the right time (depending on the situation they’re facing) to make sense of the whole picture.


An obvious example was the centralizing of decision making for public service agencies when the pandemic arrived early last year. Good leaders adjusted their approach, becoming more directive to enable quicker decision making rising to the appropriate governance level. Those same leaders were able to shift gears when things returned to a more measured pace by delegating and devolving broader responsibilities within their team. Switching between these modes sounds easy but isn’t.


As we’ve learnt over summer we remain in a rolling and dynamic environment that will likely require leaders across the public sector to continue switching between these modes during 2021. Most of us have a comfort zone within our leadership approach, however this rolling scenario will require our behaviours to adjust more regularly than we feel comfortable doing. Largely because it takes extra energy and we generally seek comfort utilizing the behaviours that come most naturally.


A common theme or struggle that many leaders I worked with during 2020 spoke about was the difficulty in staying aligned with the ever changing and ambiguous environment. Many struggled to support their very senior bosses whilst also creating meaningful direction for their teams. Several spoke about their team holding on too tight to work they were previously doing, not adjusting quick enough to the changing priorities that had emerged.

There’s many leadership jigsaw pieces interconnected with this challenge, often the starting point though is the importance of talking about ‘the why?’ Well known Thought Leader Simon Sinek and his book ‘Start with Why?’ provides some useful insights in this regard. Sinek indicates there’s often a disconnect between people and their leaders in an organisation.


When it comes to the work most people know what they do and how they do it but few remember why they’re doing it. Most therefore need their leaders to communicate and remind them of ‘the why’. 


In a fast-paced challenging environment it’s not usually front of mind. Most people won’t ask for it and most leaders will be too busy navigating the priorities of the day to think about it.


Unfortunately though the cost can be significant with plenty of work getting lost within the churn of the machine. Easily eroding the discretionary effort and engagement of the people doing the work. Throw in the ambiguity created by a pandemic and a complex environment can become overwhelming for many.


As I reflect back on my career in the public sector it’s surprising how often I probably wasn’t connected enough to ‘the why’, particularly in the first half of my career. I was always busy and working hard however it was only the very good leaders that reminded me about ‘the why’ by joining the dots and helping me understand the bigger picture and impacts of our ‘joined up’ work.


Those leaders enhanced my ability to look ahead, use foresight and shape the work in a way that made a difference. A secondary benefit to understanding ‘the why’ was my enhanced commitment to achieving great results for those leaders.


A Director (EL2 in the Commonwealth / Team Leader equivalent) is the obvious person to remind their team about ‘the why’, largely because they’re closest to the day-to-day ebb and flow of the work with their team. However I’d also argue that all Branch and Division Heads have an important role to play in this regard, mainly because they have a clearer view about what’s happening above and what’s potentially on the horizon. Some may say their view isn’t much clearer either, if that’s the case the work of their teams below will probably be misaligning more than they think.


The very best Secretary’s/CEO’s make it a priority. I recall working for Jeff Whalan when he was CEO of Centrelink and he would regularly be talking to the broader staff in a meaningful way about ‘the why’. Drawing practical links between their work and the strategic priorities; policy changes; Minister expectations; impacts for the front-line staff and the customers receiving the services. His dialogue was significant in shaping the quality of the work produced during that time. It also had a direct impact on the high staff engagement that existed at that time. This approach aligns to another of Simon Sinek’s insights about how successful companies work from ‘the why’ outwards.


My colleague Jen St Clair recently drew on her long experience of leadership development to remind me of another of our top notch former public sector leaders, Dr Allan Hawke, with whom she worked for quite some time. Many will know Dr Hawke from his time as Secretary of Defence (and many other senior roles). Jen reminded me of his take on leadership: ‘good leaders shape and share a vision that gives meaning to the work of others’.

There’s been many leadership books written offering interesting insights on leadership. No silver bullet exists but if there is one sentence that encapsulates leadership in the public service this is probably as close as it gets. Even though it’s a relatively simple sentence it has plenty of depth and goes right to the heart of achieving results and ‘the why’. If we unpack it a touch:

Shape and Share:
Good leaders take ‘agency’ to shape the direction of the work of their team. It usually doesn’t land in your lap, gift wrapped. They talk regularly with their boss about what success looks like over the next quarter, aiming to align and then sharing this with their team. 


They’ll think about the diversity that exists in their team and how they communicate it, ensuring they include everyone. Their whole team will understand ‘what success looks like’ and their role within it. If the work needs to shift and adjust, which it often does, there will be enough trust to do so.


Give Meaning to the work of others: It’s easy to let your own ego make the work of the team all about you. Good leaders create the environment for the people in their team to do well (which in-turn usually means you’ll do well). Good leaders find the time to help their team understand why their work matters. They will also help them understand the interdependencies that exist and what a successful outcome looks like.


In addition this approach to leadership also puts further ‘credit in the bank’ with your team, allowing you to shift leadership modes more comfortably with them if the need arises.


I’d encourage all leaders (regardless of level) to look for an opportunity in the early part of the year to remind their team about why the team exists and why their work matters.

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