Are Public Servants Like Olympians?

At some point in the last 10 days (or if you’re like me, for *most* of the last 10 days), you’ve likely tuned in to the Olympic Games. From volleyball to swimming to track and field and beyond, you and I have had a chance to cheer on fellow Americans who strive to be the best in the world at their respective sport.

Of course, behind every athlete is a story of sacrifice, dedication and determination. I had the opportunity to hear one such story in person two weeks ago when two-time silver medalist Adam Nelson delivered the closing keynote at the Next Generation of Government Summit.

His story was inspiring as he overcame what could have been a career- ending injury just months before a qualifying competition for the 2004 games.

But what struck me most was when he said this: “there is only one winner, but there are many personal victories.” He also talked about his own experience of “the struggle” that is part of the Olympic creed:

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.
Listen to Nelson talk about his strong belief in the Olympic ideals in this 2-minute clip:

NELSON CLIP by cdorobek

It got me thinking: What if there were a Public Service creed? In many ways, there already is an unwritten maxim that seems to express the spirit of public service. We see it in GovLoop member profiles when new members respond to the question, “Why do you work in government?” The number one answer: “to make a difference.”
APublic Service creed might look like this:
The most important thing in Public Service is not to amass profit but to solve problems. The core principle that compels public sector professionals is the unwavering commitment to establishing and maintaining the common good, restoring justice and peace both at home and abroad, and enabling citizens to pursue their life’s purpose unencumbered by an unnecessary or overwhelming burden.
That’s my quick sketch and I’m sure you could help in word-smithing it.
What do you think? Is your work in the public sector similar in terms of sacrifice and a sense of higher purpose?
How have the Olympic athletes inspired you to re-double your efforts in approaching “the struggle” of day-to-day public service?

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Sonja Newcombe

In response to the comment ; Is your work in he public sector similar in terms of sacrifice and a sense of higher purpose?

This is driven by the management and or leadership, I don’t see alot of sacrifice , I see the the worker ants sacrifice but so much can be done with the proper work ethics and attitudes. My current management are back stabbers and gossipers. It’s like being in primary school, u know better but trying to look good by making someone look bad. My coworkers aren’t much better i am afraid ( this is coming from leadership), i continue to grow outside of my environment and retain my ethics and hope in a positive up front leadership. I encourage my coworkers and my leadership hoping and encouraging a change in trust. Trust is missing.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Sorry to hear that Sonja. Sounds like you are definitely embroiled in “the struggle.” I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately, and several have talked about the importance of learning in the hard times – that’s where you end up growing the most. Muscle needs to be broken down before it can grow stronger.

Dean Turner

Hey Andrew, an interesting analogy! Here is Oz it may be even stronger as media are baying for blood over lack of return for investment of public monies, something that is always at the forefront of the public official.

I think a key one is the desire to “make someone’s experience with and of Government” more positive, suffering the politics of the office (not exclusive to Public Service) whilst not being remunerated at private levels.

p.s. Go USA volleyball women!

Terrence (Terry) Hill

The Federal government could certainly use more employees with the dedication, determination, and discipline of an Olympian. Unfortunately, most employees are spectators and some are even merely critics. We also have a lack of dedicated coaches that are there to serve the young potential “Olympians.”

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Dave – Well said, my friend.

@Dean – Thanks for the perspective from Down Under. I think that’s why transparency is so important – let’s be upfront about what’s being spent and the ROI.

@Terry – My sense is that a lot of people chose government work with a spirit of service. Any way to reignite their (Olympic) flame?

Terrence (Terry) Hill

@Andy – There is no short answer, but we certainly need to cherish that flame that all new employees have and stop extinguishing it. We need to provide opportunities for employees to make progress in performing meaningful work. It’s almost a cliche, but we need to engage their talents and strengths, channel their energy/enthusiasm, and enable/support them in their challenges. Easier said than done, but it it certainly worth trying. What alternative do we have?