, , ,

Leading Across Boundaries in an Era of Complex Challenges

Governments today face serious, seemingly intractable public management issues that go to the core of effective governance and leadership. Government leaders are presented with difficult choices, but also unprecedented opportunities. The right kind of leadership approach and style can drive change in government.

From budget reductions to a struggling economy, disasters to pandemics, the seemingly intractable challenges facing government leaders extend far beyond the ability of any one agency or leader to respond. These are complex, often non-routine, challenges that are increasingly cross-cutting, interagency in nature, and go to the core of effective governance and leadership – testing the very form, structure, and capacity required to meet them head-on. Many are difficult to anticipate and in most manifestations, they do not follow orderly and linear processes.

As Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, observes, “There was a time when leaders shared a sense that the problems they faced could be managed through the application of well-known rules and linear logic. Those days are gone. Most of today’s important problems have a significant wicked component, making progress impossible if we persist in applying inappropriate methods and tools to them.”

There are different types of leadership approaches, from transactional to transformative and beyond. A survey of leadership experts and government leaders I have interviewed on The IBM Center for The Business of Government’s radio program makes one thing clear—there is no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership.

Understanding Context is Crucial for Effective Leadership

What does seem evident is the importance of context when honing one’s leadership approach. It becomes apparent that effective leaders must possess and exercise a certain level of contextual intelligence. As Professor Joseph Nye stresses in Leadership, Power and Contextual Intelligence, “Understanding context is crucial for effective leadership. Some situations may call for autocratic decisions and some require the exact opposite. There is an infinite variety of contexts in which leaders have to operate, but it is particularly important for leaders to understand culture, distribution of resources, followers’ needs and demands, time urgency, and information flows.”

Given today’s context a specific kind of leadership approach seems to be most effective. It is an approach that recognizes the importance of:

reaching across agencies, connecting networks of critical organizational and individual actors, mobilizing the whole of government’s capabilities, and achieving a result greater than the sum of the agencies involved

Some have come to call this collaborative or shared leadership. I highlight examples of collaborative leadership in action in the IBM Center special report, Six Trends Driving Change in Government.

Examples of Collaborative Leadership in Action

  • Using Managed Networks. Ed DeSeve puts a finer point on this leadership approach in his IBM Center report, Managing Recovery: An Insider’s View. DeSeve led the implementation of the $840 billion Recovery Act in 2009, which is a perfect example of tackling a complex, non-routine challenge in government — the doling out and tracking of significant amounts of federal dollars. For DeSeve his success relied on forging an integrated system of relationships — amongst federal agency, state and local entities, and other stakeholders – that reached across both formal and informal organizational boundaries—what DeSeve calls a managed network, which is a key tool of collaborative leadership.
  • Managing “Big Science:” A Case Study of the Human Genome Project. Dr. Francis Collins rep­resents a new type of leader in government. Prior to becoming NIH director, Collins led an international coalition consisting of other government organizations, the private sec­tor, and the academic community as part of the Human Genome Project (HGP). In Managing “Big Science:” A Case Study of the Human Genome Project, Prof. Harry Lambright highlights that Collins faced the challenge of reorienting HGP from a loose consortium into a tight alliance with a small circle of performers and decision-makers.Instead of relying on the traditional command-and-control leadership style, Collins relied on a more collegial, collaborative style. However, as the project began to evolve, maturate, and face direct competition from an external party, Collins recognized that the leadership approach of old would no longer be as effective. Exemplifying the importance of contextual intelligence, Dr. Collins recognized that it took a certain leadership to launch HGP, and another kind to make the changes that took it to a successful conclusion.

Depending on the challenge faced, government leaders may need to fundamentally transform how their organizations operate to meet mission. For example, when facing the challenge of budget cuts and significant resource reallocation, transformational change that can deliver mission value more efficiently will be increasingly important.

  • Establishing the National Center for Advancing Translational Science. Francis Collins now director of NIH recognized the need to more effectively translate NIH’s basic research into actual medical applications — this was driven by his desire to focus on outcomes!! His vision – establish the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) clashed with the status quo at the NHI. Collins hit the ground running, setting goals at the outset, having clarity as to means, using effectively the power of his office, and most importantly forging collaborative networks and support inside and outside the NIH. He was once again successful!

Eight Lessons for Leading in an Era of Complex Challenges

Whether leading the Human Genome Project, establishing the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), or ensuring the proper implementation of the $840 billion Recovery Act, we draw eight lessons from the leaders profiled in the report:

  1. Leaders need to act quickly with strategic intent
  2. Attention from the top is paramount
  3. Collaboration maximizes speed of execution
  4. Use different leadership styles when necessary
  5. Define and focus on your goals and objectives
  6. Articulate a strategy for moving forward
  7. Engage employees and put customers first
  8. Seize the moment

Though these lessons are drawn from the experience of public sector leaders, they have applicability to leaders across all sectors. Leaders are responsible for envisioning, shaping, and safeguarding the future, creating clarity amidst uncertainty. This is no small feat and it is made increasingly difficult in the 21st century, where rapid, unforeseen change seems to be the only constant.

Leave a Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply