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Apr 2016 | DISRUPTIVE LEADERSHIP

Letter from the Editor
Tyler Sutton, Editor-in-Chief

DISRUPTIVE LEADERSHIP

 

This year at the annual alumni conference for Western University’s Local Government Program, Ann Pappert, Chief Administrative Officer for the City of Guelph Ontario, gave the most atypical speech about leadership and public sector management. Rather than promulgating the virtues of cautious, steady-as-she-goes leadership, a popular approach to management in the public sector on account of the inherent political risks lurking behind every decision, Ann spoke of the need for disruptive, conscious leadership in government in order to tackle the complex challenges of today.    

Having launched an ambitious Open Government Action Plan in Guelph, complete with a Leadership Charter, Ann has focused on empowering city employees to be courageous leaders and to innovate where possible. Purged from Guelph’s management lexicon is the following statement: “We do it this way because that’s how we’ve always done it.” 
 
Closing her speech, Ann asked conference delegates – a mix of established local government managers and current or recently graduated master’s students – to “dare to enter the arena and come down from the bleachers.” Entering the arena does not necessarily mean entering the political arena – there is still a strong argument for the clear division of responsibilities between bureaucrats and political representatives. Rather, public sector managers must take greater risks within their own realm of policy and administration, trying new approaches to both age-old and emerging challenges.
 
With change, especially rapid change, comes disruption. It’s inevitable, and in many cases, welcome. This issue of the Public Sector Digest looks at those leaders in the public sector who have managed to disrupt their respective organizations and their engrained practices, for the better. It’s an incredibly challenging task to lead change in a department, ministry, or entire government without sustaining significant collateral damage. Disruptive leadership is a cornerstone of the private sector, producing some of the most innovative businesses and solutions, but arguably private sector leaders can sustain more collateral damage in the process, as long as shareholders remain happy.  
 
Managing a small community adds another layer of complexity to disruptive leadership. Chris Wray, CAO of the Municipality of Wawa – a town of 3000 people in Northern Ontario – describes the difficulties of challenging the status quo in an environment where ‘everybody knows your name’: “Small communities are comprised of many over-lapping relationships that can quickly create contemptuous situations for even the most skilled CAO resulting in defamatory letters and other unwarranted comments.”  
 
The CEO of Guelph’s Chamber of Commerce, Kithio Mwanzia, has succeeded, by working both collaboratively and disruptively, in helping move Guelph’s local economy out of the Great Recession and into its current jobs boom. Mwanzia has led the Chamber in its efforts to “make businesses and organizations of all sizes think more innovatively.” For Art Petty, an author and speaker on leadership and management excellence, “leaders who succeed in producing great outcomes knock obstacles out of the way for their teams every single day—sometimes with finesse and sometimes with force.”     
 
To be sure, disruptive leadership should not be equated with destructive leadership (see Republican Party presidential primaries). Disruptive leadership, of the kind advocated by Ann Pappert, requires an acute consciousness of the intended and unintended consequences of our actions, and the ability to admit when we’re wrong as we experiment with new strategies. According to Ann, “being disruptive is easy, but being vulnerable is tough.”     
 
Tyler Sutton, Editor-in-Chief
Public Sector Digest