Public sector leaders need meta-skills

Leadership meta-skills should be developed in the public sector, according to Marika Tammeaid's doctoral dissertation from the University of Vaasa. These skills would serve as an antidote to harmful bureaucratisation and help siloed administrative sectors to succeed in collaborative governance.

Essential meta-skills for any public sector leader are learning-to-learn, a systems approach extending beyond one’s own organisation towards ecosystem building, a dialogical way of interacting, the ability to enhance thinking from multiple perspectives, putting things into practice with a human focus, and an enabling leadership approach utilising diversity and supporting self-organisation.

According to Marika Tammeaid, who will publicly defend her doctoral dissertation at the University of Vaasa on Friday 26 May, intertwined social problems, reduced predictability and the pluralism of society are challenging public sector leadership and traditional public administration decision-making. Finding new solutions requires both solution-oriented cooperation between the administrative branches and involving the rest of society in co-creating new solutions.

Tammeaid's doctoral research in the field of social and health management shows that investing in good leadership is not only crucial for employees and organisations but also directly impacts the public sector's capacity for renewal, the quality and human-centredness of public policy, and the ability of the public sector to deliver good services to citizens.

Meta-skilful leadership helps to approach the multifaceted social issues simultaneously from different administrative sectors and weave together the horizontal networks of collaborative governance, says Tammeaid.

Silos hindering the phenomenon- and human-centred way of functioning can be not only political and structural but also mental by nature, notes Tammeaid.   Meta-skills can act as an antidote for overcoming the dysfunctions of bureaucracy and hierarchy.

A new perspective on reforming public leadership

  My dissertation combines scholarly knowledge on learning and change with scholarly traditions on public sector leadership. By doing so, it provides a new viewing angle and new solutions to the growing complexity challenges facing public administrations, says Marika Tammeaid.

Her research is qualitative and interdisciplinary. Semi-structured interviews with senior civil service leaders serve as important source material, shedding light on the leaders’ own thoughts about the importance of meta-skills in succeeding in coordinative public tasks.

Previous research literature has primarily examined the impact of complexity and the conditions for citizen participation in municipal and regional administration. Tammeaid's doctoral dissertation complements the previous research literature from the point of view of less researched central administration and specifically the viewpoint of senior civil servant leaders.

Leadership meta-skills are learnable and teachable

The dissertation reveals that public sector leadership meta-skills have been discussed very little in the research literature and, if they have, mainly from a problem-oriented and externally evaluative perspective and as individual traits. However, Tammeaid's doctoral research emphasises that public leadership is foremost about succeeding together. Therefore, it would be important to move on from a leader- and position-centric view of leadership.

It is far more fruitful to look at leadership as a social process – a social process that builds a platform for cooperation and gathers different skills and resources together to build new solutions,”, stresses Marika Tammeaid. With this we also build reciprocity and trust, two crucial elements of collaboration.

Tammeaid's dissertation highlights that public leadership need to be developed in a way that helps address the complexity challenge.

  Different people with different strengths can succeed in demanding leadership roles, but it requires an understanding of the significance of meta-skills. Opportunities for developing meta-skills should be consciously provided, for example in leadership training. Leadership meta-skills offer a concrete and directly applicable way to address the current challenges of the public sector.

Marika Tammeaid, kuva: Tilda Hopia / Itla

Doctoral dissertation

Tammeaid, Marika (2023) Public sector leadership meta-skills. Acta Wasaensia 507. Doctoral dissertation. Vaasan yliopisto / University of Vaasa.

Publication pdf

Public defence

The public examination of M.Soc.Sc. Marika Tammeaid’s doctoral dissertation “Public sector leadership meta-skills” will be held on Friday 26 May 2023 at noon at the University of Vaasa, lecture hall F118.

It is also possible to participate in the public defence remotely: Zoom, password: 107889

Professor Caspar van den Berg (Universiteit Leiden) will act as the opponent and Professor Harri Jalonen as the custos.


Further information

Marika Tammeaid, tel +358 50 340 9798,

Marika Tammeaid is a Solution-Focused coach, Clinical Supervisor, organisational developer and leadership trainer. She was born in Espoo, Finland, finalised her upper secondary education at Kallio Upper Secondary School 1985 and completed her Master’s degree in Social Sciences at the University of Helsinki 1992.

During her career, she has been working as the Director of the Nordic Council of Ministers’ Tallinn Office, Head of the Career Services of the University of Helsinki, Development Manager at the State Treasury of Finland, Head of the Development Unit of the Ministry of Finance, and as a Leading Specialist at Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra. At present, she is Director of Development for the Itla Children’s Foundation. Alongside her organisational roles, she has for 20 years trained coaches, clinical supervisors and leaders at further education centres of several universities, and in various international development and evaluation projects.

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