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Why Are Many Government Officials Such Bad Leaders?

Warren C. Hoy was recently named plant manager of a DuPont plant near Buffalo, NY. A DuPont employee for 31 years, Hoy has some great thoughts about leadership that were reported in a Buffalo News article.

Through his 31 years of experience Hoy has learned the following about leadership:

- As a leader you don’t and shouldn’t make all decisions.

- Developing people by teaching them to make choices rather than just telling them what to do is critical for an organization. As Hoy states: “Give them a very clear understanding of what the end result needs to look like and then get out of their way. Give them the tools that they need and let them do the work”.

- Be clear on expectations and provide people feedback on how they’re doing.

- Give people flexibility to figure out the best way to achieve the results sought. Hoy states: “I tell folks, I’ll give you my opinions — I try to be very clear about when I’m giving direction versus just saying “Hey, here are some things to think about.” But I’ve had the chance to grow because I’ve had the opportunity that people trusted me to deliver on something, and I’m really trying to basically play that forward a little bit. … Rarely can I think of where we have asked someone to step forward and lead an effort and not be amazed at what they can deliver”.

My favorite quote in the interview is when Hoy states: “We have this mantra we use in the continuous improvement world called, “releasing the hidden plant in the hidden person.” That’s really what that’s all about. We’ve got employees at this site and others that are leaders in the community. They’ve got hobbies that they’ve developed into businesses or really strong activities. They’ve got the skills, they’ve got the capabilities. A lot of times, it’s a matter of providing them the opportunity to grow and shine”.

From my experience in government and from what I read about many government leaders, few take the approach that Hoy does in managing people. Many government leaders, especially elected ones take the opposite approach in that they:

- Think they should make all decisions;

- Micromanage employees instead of providing people flexibility;

- Are not very clear about expectations or in providing constructive feedback;

- Do not provide opportunities for others to grow and shine.

A recent Crains New York article highlighted the following leadership traits of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo:

- “He is so unbelievably involved in almost everything,” said an Albany insider of Mr. Cuomo. “On one level, it’s very impressive because he’s a machine in the way he works. But it’s also completely paralyzing and debilitating because [agencies] can’t go to the bathroom without him giving the go-ahead.”

- “While Mayor Michael Bloomberg delegates authority and holds his commissioners accountable, the reverse is true in the Cuomo administration, said one agency head, who, like many of those interviewed, asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. “Other than the people who surround the governor, everything we do is assumed to be wrong,” said the agency head. “That attitude is great for the short term—everybody’s on message. But unless things loosen up, you’re going to see staff at the agency level leave office before the first term is up.”

- The governor has little incentive to change if he continues to enjoy victories and high ratings. But the defections that one agency head predicted may be materializing. The Labor Department has lost five top administrators, including a leading health and safety official. Others, such as a former top employee of an elected official and a well-known lobbyist, are in talks about working for Mr. Cuomo but are hesitant because of concerns that they won’t have autonomy. “You can’t run a government like New York and not have good, talented people around you,” the insider said. “That’s where micromanagement is going to come back to bite him.”

New York Times article stated the following about Cuomo’s leadership style:

“… he has … alienated subordinates, who call his demands unrealistic, his approach overbearing and his intolerance for disagreement dispiriting.”

“… he will have to learn to trust and empower a broader circle of subordinates, and allow for pushback. If he does not, he could fail.”

While I have just used Governor Cuomo as an example, his style of leadership seems to takes place in abundance at all levels of government. Why do you think many government officials are such bad leaders?

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Tags: leadership


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Comment by SteveWonder on November 25, 2012 at 3:59pm

Some officials in states allowing partisan local elections (mostly east of the Miss. River) engage themselves in petty, selfish Party Politics overshadowing proper delivering on needs of constituents. These officials sometimes end up "under arrest," then, convicted for violating state, federal laws.

States noted for high rates of local officials engaging in these "problems" include Louisiana, Illinois, New Jersey, Georgia, Indiana, Pennsylvania, New York and Kentucky. 


If these and other states mandated public servant ethics training as a condition for employment, you'd see a lot less partisanship in the public workplaces. better productivity, more citizen satisfaction.

Comment by Roger White on November 23, 2012 at 5:55am

Paul - nice post. What you say rings true in the UK so I've taken the liberty of giving you a plug on my mainly-UK-oriented blog at Thanks..

Comment by Phuong Le Callaway, PhD on November 21, 2012 at 8:10pm
@Stewart F Gwyn-- I like the "in" and "out" action items! Thanks!
Comment by Phuong Le Callaway, PhD on November 21, 2012 at 8:06pm
May be it is time now to establish a real mechanism for weeding out chronic bullies (sociopaths).  Chronic bullies should be dealt with, especially in the public sectors. Weeding out chronic bullies should be on the top of any management agenda. Should we hold government officials, especially organizational leaders, accountable for performance and results and ethical behaviors? In reinventing government and improving leadership performance and organizational behaviors, implementing 360-degree performance feedback is the right course of action. It will help weed out bad managers and leaders and enhance bottom line results!
Comment by Josh Nankivel on November 21, 2012 at 6:31pm

There are lots of chronic bullies (sociopaths) in the public and private sector who think what they do is called leadership, and many around them must be convinced of the same in order for them to land in these roles.

Until all business and public sector leaders internalize concepts like those put forth in "Leading Lean Software Development: Results Are not the Point" by the Poppendiecks it's not going to change - sociopaths are still going to be promoted into leadership positions.  Although I would say that from the standpoint of decades the overall trend is in the right direction (pure opinion only).

There are many studies like this one with similar conclusions - this is well established:

"Findings – Organisational tolerance and acceptance for sociopathic managerial behaviour appears to be a consequence of cultural and structural complexity. While this has been known for some time, few authors have posited an adequate range of explanations and solutions to protect stakeholders and prevent the sociopath from exploiting organisational weaknesses. Reduction of cultural and structural complexity may provide a partial solution. Transparency, communication of strong ethical values, promotion based on performance, directed cooperation, and rewards that reinforce high performing and acceptable behaviour are all necessary to protect against individuals with sociopathic tendencies."


A lot of the organizational structures and culture we see today in government are perfectly aligned with these findings - lots of cultural and structural complexity (bureaucracy) with no real mechanism for weeding out chronic bullies (sociopaths). 

Comment by Jaime Gracia on November 21, 2012 at 2:09pm

What a great post and discussion. This is really a chapter of "Good to Great" by Jim Collins, the gold standard for what make successful companies tick. Although many in industry and government state that people are their greatest asset, and espouse the qualities of what their leadership tenures will be, few actually practice what they preach. 

In regards to the question in the post's title, what I have seen is a woeful lack of qualifications or capabilities for the leadership positions some government "leaders" have, combined with the lack of any meaningful accountability.

At some agencies, leadership positions are a war of attrition. The ones that hang around long enough get the leadership positions. The thought is that since they have been around so long, they should be able to lead and manage, right?



Comment by Stewart F Gwyn on November 21, 2012 at 10:43am

Corporate levels are sensing difference of 90's style to our new desires, but I don’t see government remaking any models for change. Mostly working with Gov Administrators - executing a policy by leaders elected or appointed. I see corporate levels trying to run or program manage having never read or comprehend aspects of delivery or ignoring elements, and a Gov Administrator being forced to manage services. Administrators send feedback and each higher-level seemingly set a tone down version with rhetoric and this impact lost. It must be frustrating, having most of our time breakdown due to a missing key-personnel or unfilled position on both sides of this equation (contract and administrator).

While reading your posts, this article seem to resonate your review. And one, we are using to reference our personnel as producers, general expense, and/or support personnel to both groups (as customers). Having lived through corporate departments trying to become revenue generating down to lowest levels and creating competing departments for the same customer.   We recognized this from late 90's,

Here's my list of "old school" practices you ought to chuck, and "new school" practices to champion instead:

Out: Micro-management, or the need to control every aspect of your company.

In: Empowerment, the ability to give your people some rope--even rope to make mistakes without blame.

Out: Management by walking around the office; it is no longer enough to be visible.

In: Leadership by watching and listening, engaging in conversation, implementing the ideas presented to you, and distributing the results.

Out: Pretending you know everything. You don't have all the answers, so why try to make people think you do?

In: Knowing your leadership team members and trusting them. Choose great people who have the right skills and fit the culture. And get out of the way.

Out: No mistakes, or a "no tolerance policy" some still think works.

In: Learning from mistakes, or being the first to admit an error.

Out: The balance sheet drives the business, and informs all other decisions.

In: People drive the business, boosting customer loyalty, and profit.

Out: Job competency is sufficient. Do the job asked, and you'll survive.

In: Recruit "A" players who will go the extra mile. They're out there.

Out: Invest in technology to increase productivity.

In: Invest in people.

Out: Demand change; be very specific about what you want and when.

In: Nurture change; your people can come up with the best ideas and you can give them credit for it.

Out: Fried food in the cafeteria.

In: Wellness in the workplace.

Out: Incentives; pay employees more money and they'll do more.

In: Rewards; being valued matters more than money.

Comment by Phuong Le Callaway, PhD on November 21, 2012 at 10:11am

@Clator Butler--Great post! 

Comment by Clator Butler on November 21, 2012 at 9:50am

The same holds true for industry.  Those companies who nurture and grow leaders typically succeed, while those companies ruled by a tyrannical mindset ultimately fail.  For those who wish to cite examples to the contrary, understand:

a) There are always exceptions to any rule; and

b) The future hasn't revealed itself yet.

Ultimately good management comes from the top-down.  Great leaders can have larger-than-life public personas, but know how to put their ego in check when inspiring the workforce to excel.  Most importantly, a good leader knows how to hold individuals accountable for individual failures, not failures in leadership.  When a leader is a micromanager, there is only one person who can be blamed.

Comment by Dick Davies on November 21, 2012 at 9:19am

Nice one, Dannielle. You packed a lot of reality into your comment!

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