The purpose of this paper is to examine the similarities and differences between CEO leadership in the public sector and leadership in the private sector, as well as how these leadership qualities are complementary, which means that great leaders can lead well in any context, whether it is public or private. This is a relevant examination, as there is currently not a unilateral agreement on what comprises a great leader. As Storey (2005) states, “there are few, if any, hotter topics in management, business and organization theory at the present time than leadership.” For this reason, a close evaluation of CEO public and private sector leadership will illuminate their respective roles in the business world today, a vital topic of study since “the differences in organizational structure, culture and environment force organizations in public and private sectors to analyze thoroughly the type of leadership they need in order to guarantee an optimal organizational development in the future” (Bogaert & Van Keer, 2009). Establishing a ideal CEO leadership framework, which can be executed in both private and public sectors, will help assure businesses’ continued success in the future.

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First, this paper will examine the similarities between CEO leadership in the public sector and leadership in the private sector. These similarities are unsurprising, as well leaders, regardless of context, need to exhibit certain characteristics to serve as leaders in the first place. It is also important to distinguish leaders from managers. Storey (2005) identifies key traits that distinguish leaders from managers, and this identification concludes that leaders “are transformative, seek to challenge and change systems, create new visions and new meanings, empower, seek to inspire and transcend, have a long-term focus, [and] focus on the strategic big picture.” Whether these leaders reside in a public sector or a private sector, they should exhibit these traits. These traits are what sustain businesses and set them apart from others, and this is exactly why the success or downfall of a given company is attributed to its leadership. This is why Bogaert and Van Keer (2009) assert, “It is clear that such differences between senior leaders in the private and public sectors that persist are relatively small.” To provide evidence for this assertion, this paper will examine various public and private companies and illustrate the similarities between the leadership styles as evidence of these core traits.

Second, this paper will examine the differences between CEO leadership in the public sector and leadership in the private sector. These differences may be more surprising than the similarities. This report will cite a study conducted by Silvia and McGuire (2010), who compare two different behaviors executed by the same leader in two different scenarios: in a private context, which relies more on a network structure, and in a public context, which relies more on a hierarchal structure. At the termination of their study, Silvia and McGuire (2010) conclude that the same leader focused “more on people-oriented behaviors” in a private context. On the other hand, Deloitte (2009) notes that “public-sector leaders are facing a combination of challenges from the tough financial climate, citizens’ expectations for improved services as lower cost and political commitments to reform public-sector management,” which may explain why these types of leaders focus less on people and more on politics. Bogaert and Van Keer (2009) acknowledge that private sector leaders “tend to be more communicative and positive in their relationships with other people” while public sector leaders “are more prudent, more conceptually and strategically oriented and more innovative.” However, this does not mean that private sector leaders are not innovative, nor does it mean that public sector leaders lack people skills.

Third, this paper will examine how the qualities of CEO leaders in the public sector and the qualities of CEO leaders in the private sector can complement one another. In other words, this paper will explore how different leaders can adapt different strategies so that both types of leaders to be successful in both public sectors and private sectors. This is particularly critical during globalization, which Haufler (2001) discusses, “At the national level, most industrialized and many developing countries are moving toward a more market-friendly system of regulation, in which governments often delegate numerous responsibilities to the private sector.” This quote demonstrates the hybridization of public sectors and private sectors, particularly across international boundaries. For these reasons, it is even more important for a leader to complement, not conflict, any differences that occur between leadership qualities in the private sector and the public sector. It is also important for a leader to exhibit traits typically exhibited in the private sector and the public sector in a time when private companies can become public companies, particularly Internet-based companies.

Lastly, this paper will conclude with a summary of all the previously discussed points, as well as observations regarding the current state of CEO leadership in both the private and public sector, reaffirming the similarities between the two while also stressing that the differences can complement, not conflict, with one another. This paper will stress the fact that truly great leaders should be great in any context, whether it is a private sector or a public sector. This paper will also offer insight into the current direction of leadership in general, and whether it has taken a turn for the worse or for the better.

  • Bogaert, J. & Van Keer, E. (2009). Decoding the DNA of public and private sector leaders. New York: Hudson.
  • Haufler, V. (2001). A public role for the private sector: Industry self-regulation in a global economy. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
  • Leadership at all levels: Leading public-sector organizations in an age of austerity. (2009). Deloitte. United Kingdom: Deloitte LLP.
  • Silvia, C. & McGuire, M. (2010). Leading public sector networks: An empirical examination of integrative leadership behaviors. The Leadership Quarterly, 21(2), 264-277.
  • Storey, J. (2005). Leadership in organizations: Current issues and key trends. New York: Taylor & Francis.