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Commentary: How and why Singapore's public service is stepping up its leadership game

The pandemic had highlighted the critical role of leadership in government.

Mr Leo Yip, Head of Civil Service, speaking at the annual Public Service Leadership ceremony on Nov 1.

Mr Leo Yip, Head of Civil Service, speaking at the annual Public Service Leadership ceremony on Nov 1.

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Focusing on competencies rather than qualities, institutionalising a 360 feedback exercise, and helping leaders to build up other leaders — these are three focus areas for the public service as it seeks to raise its leadership game.

Mr Leo Yip, Head of Civil Service, outlined these steps during the annual Public Service Leadership ceremony on Nov 1, as he urged public servants to make the continual effort to become better leaders. Below is an excerpt of his speech, in which he also revealed how he picked up leadership skills by observing good and bad leaders.

The pandemic had highlighted the critical role of leadership in government.

In a crisis, leaders have to deal with uncertainty and volatility and galvanise the courage and conviction of our people to take difficult steps together.

In normal times, our leaders have to navigate difficult challenges, lead change, and rally our people to aspire towards new bounds of ambition.

Leadership in our Public Service is about stewardship and responsibility, not position or privilege.

The Leadership Statement, which all the senior Public Service Leaders (PSLs) would have already received and the newly appointed PSLs and Heads of Profession will receive today, sets out what we individually and collectively stand for in our leadership commitment, responsibilities, and duty.

First and foremost, we are responsible for bringing the collective, made up of our officers, teams, and agencies, together to work towards a common purpose and that is to serve Singapore and Singaporeans.

We know full well that there are many opportunities to seize for Singapore, and in this uncertain and even dangerous world, many challenges to confront.

The Government is refreshing our social compact through the Forward Singapore exercise which Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong leads. The Public Service itself is in the midst of a major public sector transformation exercise

We want to transform our Public Service into one that can scale the next bounds of ambition and serve Singapore and Singaporeans even better.

It follows that in such a Public Service we must also raise our leadership game to the next bound. So we must work hard to step up our leadership effectiveness, to better inspire, enable, develop, and galvanise our officers.

We have to do this at both the individual level as well as for leadership teams.

First, each of us must make the continual effort to be better leaders. Second, for those of us who lead teams of leaders, we must also step up their leadership development and effectiveness.

This is what I want to talk about, how we will continue to strengthen leadership development in our Public Service.

Leadership Development — Key Priority of Our Public Service

Through the years, our Public Service has devoted significant attention to leadership development. Selecting, developing, and deploying leaders is a key leadership priority.

We also regularly review our approach to leadership development to stay relevant. We conducted three major reviews on leadership development over the past two decades — in 1999, 2011, and 2019. These have resulted in some significant shifts, some of which DPM Wong had touched on just now.

a) In 2013, we established the Public Service Leadership Programme (PSLP) to strengthen sectoral leadership development. This is a significant milestone.

b) We have begun sending more officers on our talent programmes — referring to the Administrative Service and the PSLP — out to gain a different experience in the private and the people sectors. This year, 15 officers are out for attachments with companies like CapitaLand, ShopBack, and Shell, with some for up to two years.

Overall, about 15 per cent of Administrative Officers and PSLP (Sectoral) officers have chalked up external experiences.

c) We also want our officers to develop a wider range of competencies and job experiences within the service. Thus, the Public Service Division (PSD) now works closely with officers on our talent programmes to more actively plan their postings to develop that range of competencies and experiences, from policy to operations, to implementation, stakeholder engagement, and also to develop whole-of-government perspectives.

Such a systematic approach to leadership development has been a key strength of our Public Service. But all strengths need to be built upon from time to time.

So, in the past two years, we have made three further key shifts to strengthen our leadership development.

Leadership Competency Framework

Firstly, we have moved from focusing on appraisal qualities to competencies. Let me explain what this is about.

Hitherto, we used to assess officers as well as develop them based on our understanding of appraisal qualities.

You know what this is about, it is the framework called AIM; A for analytical and intellectual capacity, I for influence and collaboration, and M for motivation for excellence.

We made a decisive shift across our Public Service towards competency-based growth.

Competencies are demonstrable behaviours, they are more concrete, they are more relatable to all of us, and they can be developed through deliberate effort.

In conjunction with this, we developed our own framework of leadership competencies that are tailored to what leaders in our Public Service need to do.

The framework also alerts leaders not just on what competencies they need to build and exercise, but also on what are the red flag behaviours that reduce our leadership effectiveness.

An example of a red flag is the tendency to kick the can down the road or the tendency to push up decisions and avoid making them.

These competencies are tiered according to the different levels of leadership that we have to exercise, so there is a level for permanent secretaries, deputy secretaries, chief executive officers, directors, and middle managers.

In particular, I want to highlight two dualities in our leadership competency framework.

Dualities are dual competencies that need to be exercised at the same time. These dualities actually highlight quite starkly the complex and challenging responsibilities of leaders in the Public Service:

a) The first duality is that of “managing our unit” and “managing external stakeholders”. We must be leaders who can lead our own units and teams effectively, but at the same time to work with other partners in other agencies to achieve cross-agency and whole-of-government objectives.

b) The second duality is “delivering for today” and at the same time building and “innovating for tomorrow”.

We will systematically use the Leadership Competency Framework to develop and to assess leaders.

To all of you, make the effort to learn the competencies that apply to you, work to develop them, and become a better leader.

For young officers among us just starting out on your leadership journey, you now have a frame of the competencies to refer to — what you need to build, grow in and apply.

For those of you leading organisations, use this competency framework to strengthen your leadership teams.

360 Feedback Exercise

The second shift that we have made is to institutionalise the 360-degree feedback exercises. These exercises allow each of us to gather feedback on how we as leaders are demonstrating the competencies expected of us.

The value of this feedback is that it comes from varied sources, not just from who we work for, but from who works for us and who we work with laterally, our peers.

All permanent secretaries, deputy secretaries and chief executives underwent a first round of the exercise in 2020. This sends a strong signal to our officers that the senior leadership wants to improve on our leadership.

About 70 per cent of directors have also taken the exercise since, and the remaining directors will do so next year. We will conduct such exercises every two-three years to ensure we gather updated feedback.

These exercises provide very rich and valuable data, allowing us to take a more evidence-based approach to do a few things:

a) Inform individual leadership development,

b) Assess how well members of organisational leadership teams complement each other, and what are the sets of competencies across the teams and what is lacking

c) Assess gaps and strengths of the Public Service senior leadership cohort as well as the whole cohort of young officers just starting out on your leadership journey.

All of you will go through such 360 feedback exercises in time. The findings can sometimes make for uncomfortable reading.

But like them or not, do not shy away from them or just file them away. Instead, use them to chart your journey to become better leaders.

PSD will provide you with debriefs and executive coaching, to help you build on your strengths and address areas you need to work on.

PSD will also work with permanent secretaries and chief executives to strengthen leadership teams, by providing assessments of the teams’ collective strengths and growth areas, conducting collective leadership development sessions, and providing support in succession planning.

Permanent secretaries and chief executives should leverage this important tool to answer the question “How can I strengthen the effectiveness of the entire leadership team in my organisation?”

Leaders Building Leaders

Let me come to the last shift I wanted to share with you this afternoon, and this is to build a stronger ethos and culture of leaders growing other leaders.

This calls on leaders to adopt a stronger commitment to develop the people they work with and to take ownership to help other leaders grow.

A Leaders Building Leaders Workgroup, led by Permanent Secretaries Joseph Leong and Chng Kai Fong, has come together and developed two initiatives, one called a Leadership Xchange Directory and the second enhanced Leadership Discourse for our leadership community.

Let me explain both in turn.

First, the Leadership Xchange Directory is a new informal support network for leaders to offer advice and share their experiences with others. Leaders submit a profile of themselves in this directory and list areas that they would like to share about.

This could be how they had managed an organisation in crisis, how they had charted a path for a unit undergoing transformation, or how they had dealt with personal challenges and opportunities over the years.

Anyone, young officers or established leaders, can reach out to them to ask for advice and support.

This is not a mentorship programme, it could be a one-off dialogue, and it is really up to officers to make the best use of the network.

Second, the Leadership Discourse is about encouraging leaders to actively share leadership stories, best practices, and learning points. Some of this is already done today, but we want to make efforts more systematic.

The more candid discourse we have as a leadership community, the more we will learn from one another, and build a stronger collective sense to help support one another’s leadership development.

These moves we are making as a community will benefit you only if you take the initiative to tap them. So look up the directory to see whether you might benefit from a senior leader’s personal sharing.

And for our leaders here today, sign up to the directory to allow others to learn from your experience. Let us all make full use of this important initiative.


Reflecting on my own journey, I would say one part of my leadership development came from watching and learning from other leaders — those who inspired us but also those who filled us with despair.

And for avoidance of doubt, what I am saying is we would do well to avoid replicating the actions of the leaders who filled us with despair, not to repeat them.

Other parts of my own learning came from leadership training programmes, and also by learning on the job, which is learning by doing.

Most importantly for me, I learnt from self-reflection; what worked for me which I continued, what did not work for me which I stopped or altered, and how I could be better.

We now have a leadership competency framework to organise what we need to improve on.

We also have the 360 Degree Feedback instrument to give each of us regularly rich and comprehensive data on our effectiveness.

We also have the Leaders Building Leaders Movement to enable us to draw strength from other leaders’ experiences.

Together, these initiatives strengthen our system of leadership development in our Public Service.

As a public service, we owe it to our leaders and leaders-to-be to provide the best environment for them to grow into the best leaders they can be.

By taking our leadership development efforts to the next bound, we will build an even stronger proposition to talent to join, stay, and flourish in our Public Service.

As individuals, we owe it to the tens of thousands of public officers who have devoted their lives to public service, to lead them well.

And as the Public Service leadership team, we owe it to Singaporeans and to Singapore to lead the Public Service to serve them well today, and build a better tomorrow.

The exercise of leadership, and the development of leadership and leaders, must be our individual but also collective priority and duty and one that we must effect with excellence in our Public Service.

I call on each of us here today to commit to and make the effort to continually develop ourselves to be better leaders. Never let up in the effort to grow as better leaders and to exercise stronger leadership effectiveness.

Related topics

Public Service Division public service leadership

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