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How leadership is different in local government to the private sector

How leadership is different in local government to the private sector

02 May 2024 Eleanor Ogston


​Leadership, whether in the local government sector or the private sector, is shaped by distinct purposes and goals inherent to each domain. Local government entities are charged with providing essential public services, managing infrastructure, and ensuring the overall well-being, safety, and prosperity of communities. They serve as custodians of natural resources, overseeing environmental protection, land use, and development, while also representing local interests in broader regional and national contexts.


In contrast, the private sector is driven by the pursuit of economic growth, innovation, and efficiency through the production of goods and services for profit within competitive markets. Its pivotal role lies in creating employment opportunities, fostering entrepreneurship, and contributing to societal prosperity and development.


The inherent differences in purpose between these sectors fundamentally shape their operating frameworks, consequently requiring distinct sets of skills and knowledge from their leaders.


While these disparities may seem to suggest a dichotomy between leadership in the public and private sectors, the possibility of transitioning between them remains viable. However, such transitions necessitate careful preparation and adaptation to the unique challenges and dynamics of local government.


Drawing from over 12 years of experience recruiting executives into the local government sector, we contend that the journey from private sector leadership to a role in local government demands a nuanced understanding of the differences in leadership approaches. In this article, we delve into these disparities to elucidate the variances in leadership between the private sector and local government.


Networks and Connections

In the realm of local government, effective leadership necessitates the cultivation of extensive networks that underpin the efficient functioning of a diverse council business. Networks with other levels of Government and other local authorities not only facilitate the promotion and advocacy of community needs but also enable collaboration with Federal and State Government Ministers and Officers, as well as other local governments. Other stakeholders include citizens, community groups, businesses, suppliers, media, educational institutions and not-for-profits. Decision-making often involves balancing the interests of diverse stakeholders with varying needs and priorities. Recognising their organisation's role within the broader governmental system, local government leaders appreciate how their policies and actions contribute to the provision of essential public services, economic development, and resource management.


Conversely, networks in the private sector tend to revolve around shareholders, customers, suppliers, regulators, and partners. Connections with Government are primarily driven by the pursuit of specific purposes, such as identifying new opportunities and ensuring compliance with governmental regulations. Decision-making tends to prioritise the interests of shareholders and customers to ensure profitability and competitiveness.


While both sectors emphasise networking, the nature and focus of these networks differ significantly, reflecting the divergent goals and operating frameworks of local government and the private sector.


Visionary Thinking

Leaders in local government embody visionary thinking, steering their organisations towards long-term goals centred on sustainable development, social equity, and intergenerational equity. They maintain a keen awareness of current societal issues, and adeptly translate this awareness into tangible, impactful actions. Furthermore, they foster a culture of forward-thinking within their organisations, ensuring that decisions and initiatives align with a broader vision for the community's future.In the private sector, visionary thinking is essential for navigating the complexities of the market landscape. While short-term results may often take precedence to meet shareholder expectations and maintain competitiveness, successful business leaders recognise the importance of long-term strategic planning and sustainable practices. They leverage visionary thinking to balance immediate demands with future sustainability, driving innovation and growth while remaining adaptable to evolving market dynamics.

Service Provision

The approach to service provision varies significantly between the private and public sectors, each guided by distinct funding mechanisms, service objectives, scopes, and competitive dynamics.


Funding Mechanisms: Local government services are predominantly funded through taxes, rates, fees, and other revenues collected from the community, fostering an inherent expectation of accountability and transparency in the use of public funds. Conversely, in the private sector, services are typically funded through revenue generated from the sale of goods or services to customers, driving decision-making based on profitability and market dynamics.


Service Objectives: Councils in the public sector prioritise service delivery guided by public interest, social welfare, and government priorities, necessitating collaboration, integrity, and ethical conduct to balance stakeholder interests. In contrast, profitability dictates decision-making and resource allocation in the private sector, affording leaders greater autonomy and flexibility to respond swiftly to market changes.


Scope of Services: Local government focuses on providing essential public services, managing infrastructure, and addressing social welfare needs within the community, while the private sector engages in commercial activities, innovation, and meeting consumer demands across various industries and sectors. Both sectors serve crucial societal roles, albeit with differing missions and functions.


Competition Dynamics: Competition is a defining feature of the private sector, with businesses vying for market share based on factors such as price, quality, and convenience. Conversely, competition within the local government sector is limited, as many public services are monopolised by government entities. Citizens may have restricted choices in service providers, particularly for essential services like public safety and utilities.


Fiscal Management

Fiscal management in local government involves overseeing complex financial systems that handle public funds, taxpayer revenues, grants, and other sources of income. Leaders must adhere to various accounting standards, government regulations, and reporting requirements to ensure transparency, accountability, and compliance with fiscal policies.While financial management in the private sector also involves complex financial systems, the focus is primarily on maximising profitability, shareholder value, and return on investment. Private sector leaders make strategic financial decisions to allocate resources, manage cash flow, control costs, and optimise financial performance to achieve business objectives.


Local governments often face budgetary constraints due to limited tax revenues, competing spending priorities, and economic fluctuations. Leaders must balance revenue sources, such as property taxes, sales taxes, and grants, with expenditure needs to fund essential services, infrastructure projects, and social programs. Budgetary decisions require careful consideration of community needs, fiscal sustainability, and long-term planning. Budgetary constraints in the private sector are driven by market dynamics, revenue streams, and business cycles. Private sector leaders must allocate financial resources efficiently, prioritise investments, and manage costs to maintain profitability and competitiveness. They may face pressure from shareholders, investors, and market forces to achieve financial targets and deliver returns on investment.


Workforce Management

 Leadership in workforce planning and management differs between the public sector and the private sector due to variations in organisational goals, regulatory frameworks, and stakeholder expectations. While both sectors aim to optimise workforce effectiveness and efficiency, public sector leaders must traverse unique challenges related to government mandates, budget constraints, and public accountability. Leaders must adhere to public sector rules, collective bargaining agreements and merit-based hiring practices. They also need to navigate political dynamics and public scrutiny in workforce management decisions.


Workforce management decisions in the private sector are underpinned by business strategy, market competitiveness, and shareholder value. Leaders in the private sector have more flexibility in hiring, compensation and performance management practices. Often, they can leverage performance incentives, employee benefits and workplace culture initiatives to attract and retain top talent.


Risk Appetite

 In the public sector, leaders typically have a lower risk appetite due to several factors. Firstly, councils are often responsible for providing essential services and maintaining societal stability. Any significant risks taken by public sector leaders could potentially disrupt these critical services, leading to public backlash and loss of trust. Moreover, decision-making is subject to public scrutiny, media attention, and political accountability, which further incentivises caution in risk-taking. Leaders must carefully evaluate risks and consequences, considering the potential impact on public welfare, regulatory compliance, and long-term sustainability.


Conversely, private sector leadership often exhibits a higher risk appetite, driven by the imperatives of innovation, growth, and competitiveness. In dynamic market environments, businesses must continuously innovate and invest in new technologies, products, and markets to maintain a competitive edge and achieve sustainable growth. Private sector leaders understand that taking calculated risks is essential for seizing opportunities, entering new markets, and adapting to changing consumer preferences. However, excessive risk-taking without adequate planning, oversight, or risk management strategies can lead to financial instability, market volatility, and reputational damage. Private sector leaders must balance the pursuit of growth and profitability with prudent risk management practices to safeguard the interests of stakeholders, shareholders, and employees.


In summary, while public sector leadership tends to prioritise stability, public trust, and cautious decision-making, private sector leadership often embraces a higher risk appetite to drive innovation, growth, and competitiveness. Both sectors recognise the importance of managing risks effectively to achieve their respective goals while minimising potential negative consequences.



This article illuminates the differences between leadership in local government and the private sector. From distinct funding mechanisms to divergent service objectives and scopes, the contrast underscores the necessity for tailored approaches to leadership in each sector. Local government leaders navigate complex networks and prioritise community welfare, while their counterparts in the private sector focus on profitability and market competitiveness. Visionary thinking guides strategic planning in both sectors, albeit with divergent emphases on sustainability and profitability. Furthermore, fiscal management and workforce planning reflect unique challenges and regulatory frameworks inherent to each sector. Lastly, risk appetite diverges significantly, with public sector leaders prioritising stability and cautious decision-making, while private sector counterparts exhibit a higher tolerance for risk to drive innovation and growth. Understanding these disparities is crucial for leaders contemplating transitions between sectors and underscores the importance of adaptable leadership approaches tailored to the distinct contexts of local government and the private sector.