What leadership looks like today

By Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

Prof Francesco Mancini, Vice Dean (Executive Education) and Associate Professor in Practice, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, shares how governments can cope with today’s challenges.

Leaders today “need to develop skills to react at a speed that is almost not natural,” says Prof Franceso Mancini. As the Vice Dean (Executive Education) and Associate Professor in Practice of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, he spends a good deal of his day thinking about how to teach leadership to people in positions of power.

The world continues to face disruption with governments rethinking their communication, rewriting policies and testing new approaches to ensure that citizens’ needs are met. Mancini highlights some of the key challenges facing governments today, and the skills they will need to cope with changes to come.

New challenges for the public sector

There are two huge challenges governments today are dealing with, Mancini believes. Many already recognise the importance of tech. But leaders need to realise that “the big challenges are not technical,” he says. Communicating and engaging with citizens is the real issue to contend with.

Take contact tracing in the US or Italy, for instance. Tracing apps have not been very popular, since “the level of trust in government is very low,” he notes. “People are not sure what the government is doing with this data.”

Contrast this with countries which have seen greater uptake in contact tracing apps. “It's not a technical problem, because the app is the same,” Mancini says.

Clear communication is also important when setting rules. Simple rules are easier to follow, and a lack of understanding often translates to a lack of trust.

For instance, Singapore announced very early on the different phases for its Covid-19 restrictions. “Even if there are no dates attached - because you obviously need to keep that flexibility - it's pretty clear what it means to be in a Phase Two,” Mancini explains.

Rules should not have too many exceptions. Italy’s pandemic restrictions differ depending on where citizens work, how old they are, and which town they live in. “Compliance becomes too complex. You put a burden on the citizens of navigating these complexities that result in not doing it,” he says.

“In some cases you might need more nuances but at the beginning from a policy point of view, you need absolute clarity. Then you can build some exceptions as you go,” he adds.

Second, now that offices are dispersed across homes, managers need to come up with ways to motivate people. They need to “develop these new skills on how to read their people while meeting with them online, and to create a team spirit and engage them while operating in the virtual space,” he notes.

"None of us was trained for that. And we must be aware of the fact that the old ways rarely work online. So, there is a leadership skills vacuum now, both inside the public sector and also in private companies. The levels of engagement, motivation and enthusiasm are worrying.

“[US President Franklin] Roosevelt once said, ‘You’ve convinced me, now make me do it.’ The ‘make me do it’ part is what leadership is about,” Mancini believes. We need to find new solutions for unprecedented situations: but innovation requires enthusiasm and good connections between people. Leaders and managers need to relearn their jobs now!”

Taking note of employees’ mental health will also be vitally important. “Many managers are not trained for that, they never really thought about it,” Mancini says.

How governments are adapting

Governments around the world are quickly adapting to these new challenges. Mancini points to a trend of breaking things down into smaller, manageable steps, so teams can shift directions quickly.

Cambodia, for instance, has taken to planning quarterly budgets, instead of doing it yearly. These shorter periods allow teams to test, learn from and change policies as needed, he shares.

Governments are also simplifying services for citizens. Singapore’s LifeSG app is a good example of redesigning services to suit citizen needs, rather than how government is organised. The app presents citizens with all the public services they will need for significant milestones, such as having a baby.

More teams are empowering individuals with ideas and expertise to run small scale projects and test new approaches, Mancini says. “Things are happening so fast, and if something requires six signatures and six level of approvals to happen, you're not going to catch up,” he explains.

Teaching leadership today

The meaning and the practice of Leadership are evolving at light speed. For this reason the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy will run a new online course this February, “Leading for Innovation”, to prepare public sector leaders to respond to today’s challenges in a whole new way.

This new program - Leadership For Innovation - is one of the world’s most advanced Leadership Development Programs, created with some of our top faculty members and with a team that has done ground-breaking work also at Harvard. As you can see: we are also Leading For Innovation. The world is changing – and so are we!

Attendees will come with a particular real-life challenge in mind. Something that they are actually working on in their current roles or in the near future.

They will then delve into five days of challenging, interactive, collaborative work. They will explore concepts they can apply to their challenges and experiment with them – during the program not after! Many of these concepts come from the fields of design thinking and innovation, Mancini says.

Participants will explore new ways of thinking about leadership, change and transformation. There will be few lectures – and they will be kept to 20-minute talks, with interspersed group discussions. Most of the work will happen in groups, or brain-trusts.

These small units will also be used to discuss the participants’ challenges. “All of us are authors to solve our own challenge, but we need help from others who can see things differently. And we can also be contributors to the solution for someone else, and learn while we play this role” Mancini shares.

The course will end with three monthly one-day follow-up sessions for participants to advance their work and support the adoption of their new routines. Together, they will reflect and learn from their experiments – including their failures. “We want to make sure that people feel comfortable with failing, learning from that and moving on,” he says.

As leaders grapple with pressing challenges, “one of the risks that you have in this super accelerated change is you just live day by day, is that you don't take a longer perspective, and reflect on yourself and what kind of leader you must become” Mancini points out. Civil servants will need a new capacity, new strategies and new skills to lead their people out of a crisis. This new program has been conceived with this new purpose in mind – for a new kind of leadership in a new kind of world.