Conceptual Skills in Leading Change: A Competence Approach to Public Sector Leadership

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The British University in Dubai (BUiD)
A substantial amount of advice is available on how top management should lead, but less is known about how leaders conceptualise their leadership of change. This study concentrates specifically on conceptual skills involved in leading change in public sector organisations. Leaders’ capacity to think about abstract and complex ideas has long been acknowledged as essential to leadership tasks such as planning and analysis; however, because conceptualisation is often ambiguous and difficult to understand, many frameworks of leadership and change lack clarity on the actual significance of leaders’ conceptual skills when leading change. The challenges of the twenty-first century require public sector leaders to be dynamic and flexible in their thinking, particularly when dealing with strategic change. In this context, the thesis examines four salient areas of public sector leadership competence which are likely to be high priority areas for leadership competence development: these are self-regulation, sensemaking, integrative leadership and innovative leadership. Self-determination Theory (SDT) asserts that autonomy, competence, and relatedness are essential to leaders’ capacity for self-regulation and enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity. Leaders’ experiences of these psychological needs will be influenced by how they conceptualise them. Consistent with humanist thought and positive psychology, leaders who are fully self-functioning and authentic are more likely to make sound choices and decisions. Authentic leaders are people who are very aware of how they think and behave, and also are considered to be so by others. They are more likely to conceptualise public sector change in ways that are sincere and that inspire thoughts that are confident, hopeful, optimistic, resilient, and of high moral character. When dealing with dynamic public sector environments, leaders have to interpret and communicate the change in ways that are meaningful for other employees and government stakeholders. Sensemaking and sensegiving are interpretive cognitive acts that emerge from contexts that possess conceptual complexity. Leaders’ sensemaking involves engaging in the retrospective understanding of events and sharing meanings and emotions to create plausible accounts of what is happening. Sensegiving is required where leaders influence others’ meaning constructions by working productively with them in establishing and verifying a map of the way forward. These interpretive cognitive acts of meaning construction by leaders and followers include significant elements of conceptual thinking and explanation. The public sector consists of numerous organisations addressing diverse communities of multiple stakeholders. Integrative leadership is an emerging approach designed to encourage collective action across many boundaries in governments. Integrative approaches argue that leadership is central to the creation and maintenance of cross-sector collaborations that advance the common good. Integrative public leaders work across sector boundaries to develop the relationships and flow of resources necessary to achieve multiple sectoral goals. The thesis argues that leaders’ conceptual skills support their capacity to act on opportunities arising from the integration of divergent practices and structures. They also assist with solving problems based on partially conflicting processes and systems of governance. Innovation in public management has been categorised into three main types: political leadership during crisis, organisational turnaround, and bottom-up leadership. Research on facilitating innovation in these contexts has found that it involves the reconciliation of conflicting interests among senior team members and achieving organisational ambidexterity through exploring new capabilities while exploiting existing ones. The author’s line of argument is that conceptual skills are likely to play a significant role in ambidexterity leadership for innovation. This thesis examines conceptual skills in leading public sector change through interviews and focus groups with a sample of 123 participants based around 18 focal leaders who were all top managers of government organisations in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). These qualitative research methods are supported by field observations of public leaders at work and primary and secondary documents on public sector change and organisational and individual performance, in addition to a wide range of qualitative methods, totalling 12 distinct forms of data collection. The thesis concludes on the significance of individuals’ conceptual skills in leading public sector change by presenting a framework of conceptual skills relevant to four areas of leadership: self-regulation, sensemaking, integrative leadership and innovative leadership. The results from this phenomenographical research and its qualitative methods indicate that leaders’ conceptual skills influence the quality and extent of productive, self-regulation, sensemaking, integrative leadership, and innovative leadership in the public sector. The research results suggest that these leaders employ high-level conceptual skills in leading public sector change and can be categorised into three levels of utilising conceptual skills. These skills influence the four areas of leadership competence and are ranked in descending order, from the most advanced to the least developed. The top level consists of Expert leaders adopting conceptual skills in a unique and distinct manner, and effectively using these skills in leading change. The second level is the Proficient level including leaders adopting a similar set of conceptual skills, however, they are not consistently clear about the leadership of change or their role in attaining results. In addition to making more conceptual errors than the Expert group, there is insufficient evidence for some specific and elaborated conceptual skills. Finally, the rest of the leaders are categorised as in the Developing level where they adopt some conceptual skills, but several are notably missing. In addition, due to some erroneous ways of conceptual thinking the effectiveness of these skills and their role in change management is reduced. These three levels are distinguished by three principal criteria, skill’s uniqueness, skill’s role in leading change, and conceptual errors. This study presents a model for adopting conceptual skills, which states that the highest level of leading change in the government sector requires a set of conceptual skills that are essential to achieving the desired change. Then, the middle level group of leaders have a lower set of conceptual skills, and progressively fewer skills still at the third level. The highest level of leaders makes fewer conceptual errors, and these errors increase as the levels decrease. Furthermore, just as there are essential conceptual skills to lead change, there are also misconceptions. Erroneous adoption of conceptual skill by change leaders may prevent and inhibit desired change.
conceptual skills, leading change, competence approach, public sector, leadership, innovative leadership, United Arab Emirates (UAE)