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Thursday, 28 November 2013

Do we need more courage in the public sector?

by Kim Armstrong

Three things you need to know about courage in leadership:

1. Courage is "The ability to do something that frightens one."  Acting courageously is not acting in the absence of fear - it is acting in the face of fear, acting with mastery of fear.  It is doing the "right" thing, regardless of unpleasant consequences.

2. The most vitally important, and most notably absent, leadership quality in the public service is courage.  Courage is most notably lacking in matters involving people - not policy.  In the public service, we are fairly good at making the tough policy choices.  Not so much at dealing with toxic employees, leaders, and supervisors fundamentally lacking the ability to perform or interact well.

 3. Our actions often lack courage because we do not possess the skills to engage in uncomfortable conversations where somebody might be unhappy with us.  So instead, we choose avoidance and inaction, forgetting that the choice to do nothing is a choice too - being inactive is itself an action.

Three myths about courage in leadership:

Myth #1: If I leave the person where they are, maybe they will become competent, or "grow into the position".

The Reality: Sometimes, this may occur with focused and dedicated training targeted at the individual's developmental needs.  More often, though, no amount of training or development will change a person who fundamentally lacks key skills or key values.  Not everyone is capable of doing every job.

Myth #2: Since I put the person in this position, I need to give them a chance to succeed.

The Reality: Though this sounds fair, it can be used as an excuse for being unwilling to address a situation where someone lacks the abilities, skills or values to do a particular job.  By insisting on keeping someone in an ill-suited position, maybe you are making that person happy, but what about everyone else?  What about the people who work with or for that person and who deserve a fully competent, skilled, and principled colleague or supervisor but are, instead, getting the person you are leaving there? 

Myth #3: I do not know how to have the conversation so better if I avoid it altogether.

The Reality: Busting this myth is the whole point of this blog.  You CAN have these conversations.  Here are some suggestions about how to find the courage to act courageously.
  1. Identify the situations where courage is required, whether it is an incompetent employee, inappropriate behavior, deficient supervision, or otherwise.
  2. Map out the scope and intent of the conversation in advance - role play it with someone.  Be clear about your intent, highly self-aware and vigilant against defensiveness.  
  3. Identify possible options for a way forward and be open to alternative options that you had not anticipated.  Be open-minded.  
  4. Invite the conversation.  
  5. Take whatever actions are required.  Lead with courage and others will follow.

Ms. Armstrong has received her Honours Bachelor of Arts in Political Studies and her Bachelor of Laws.  She has also completed the Police Management Certificate.

In 1997, she joined the Edmonton Police Service as a Legal Advisor. She was later promoted to the position of Manager in charge of the Professional Standards Branch, Legal Services and Risk Management Branch.

In October, 2006, Ms. Armstrong began working for the Alberta Solicitor General as the Executive Director of the Law Enforcement and Oversight Branch.  She co-led the Alberta Long Term Crime Prevention Framework and the Alberta Gang Reduction Strategy.  In April, 2011 she was appointed as the Assistant Deputy Minister of the Justice Services Division for the Government of Alberta.   On June 1 of 2012 she was appointed to the position of Deputy Clerk of Executive Council and Deputy Secretary to Cabinet.  In this role, Ms. Armstrong provided advice and organizational support to Cabinet and its key committees.   

Most recently, on October 10, 2013, she was appointed as the  Deputy Attorney General for the Province of Alberta.


  1. Thank you, Kim, for this posting. It does take courage to have these difficult conversations and deal with challenging individuals. We do a disservice to our public service and our colleagues if we, as leaders, choose to ignore a performance issue. I am glad for this reminder that I can have these difficult conversations, and go in with awareness of my intentions, my desired outcomes and an awareness that I need to be open to other solutions.

  2. The background of public administration is the space of business’ was quoted by the pioneer of public administration, Woodrow Wilson was published a book named ‘the study of administration (1887). He wanted to understand about the public administration close to that of business administration. This was the first initiatives about the public administration.