How to Spot a Great Government Leader

Sometimes you know you’re working for a great leader and sometimes, well, sometimes you know you’re not. Here’s my tips for spotting great government leaders.

1. They put public service first.

What does it mean? It means they have a commitment to public service and to the greater good. What does that look like? They think of the big picture. They think of the public. They ask themselves what citizens need and want. It means their kneejerk reaction is not to ponder  “what’s in it for me”.

2. They’re ethical.

They think about ethics. They care about ethics. They share what they know about ethics. They learn about ethics.

Which is more than just knowing the rules and following them. It’s about doing the right thing. Even when it’s not easy. Even if it takes time and difficult conversations to figure it out. It means that ethics comes to them – not necessarily easily – but automatically.

As public servants we are often faced with challenging situations and competing priorities. We are often called upon to make tough decisions. So, identifying the ethical path does not necessarily come easily. However, in a great leader, it comes automatically. Like brushing your teeth or, good gravy, checking your email – it’s something you automatically due. It’s on their radar. It’s always on their radar.

3. They avoid avoidance.

Yes. They deal with what needs to be dealt with when it needs to be dealt with. They do not avoid the difficult, the mundane, the troubling, the fuzzy, the squishy. They wrangle it. They learn from it. They teach with it. What they don’t do is run in the opposite direction and hope that the issue will take care of itself.

They know that being an avoider will result in bigger problems with bigger consequences. Hence, they deal with it. Period. If they can’t do this, if they’re not doing this, they’re not a great government leader. In fact, they shouldn’t even be a leader.

4. They are curious.

They ask questions. They read. They ponder. They learn. They draw on the knowledge of colleagues. Does this mean they are running from one bright, shiny thing to another? No. It simply means they are willing to seek out information – new to them or new to others. They absorb it. They consider it. They may use it. They may not. The initial value is in being curious.

5. They do not seek evidence to support a pre-existing conclusion.

Instead, they seek information with an open mind and sometimes maybe even an open heart. They do not find facts to fit what they want to do. They find facts to help them determine what to do. If they were detectives, they would be the greatest.  There would be a book written about them. Maybe a movie.  And if they’re running around finding facts to fit their truth – well, then you know you’re dealing with a detective who should be busted down to patrolling the food court at the local mall.

5. They do not put themselves first.

See item 1.  Being a public servant does not mean ignoring your own needs and desires. It does not mean neglecting your own career goals and dreams. What it means is that what YOU want is considered in the context of being a proud public servant. It means that being a public servant – which, in case you’re not sure – means being a servant of the public – is the top priority. And what you need and want may happen within the context of being a public servant, being part of the public service. But it does not happen at the expense of being a stellar public servant.

6. They do not ask others to do their dirty work for them.

First of all, great leaders do not have dirty work. Oh, they have difficult work, to be sure. However, when difficult work is approached with an open mind, with curiosity and integrity and concern for the greater good – then it is not dirty work. It is rewarding and fulfilling work. If you see something and you think, ‘oh, they’re doing the dirty work’, or, ‘oh, they’ve got someone doing their dirty work for them’ – well, trust your gut. That’s probably what’s going on. Time to find a new leader.

Here’s hoping you have a great leader. If you don’t, then consider what you think makes for a great government leader and use that to scope out your next opportunity. Choose your leader.

Tracy McCabe is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Catherine Andrews

These are great tips for somebody who wants to be a good gov leader — or a manager in any field, I think! My favorite was “They avoid avoidance.” That’s a favorite characteristic of mine in a manager — they just do what needs to be done and don’t make a big deal about it, even if it’s annoying.

Jim Tyson

Thank you for sharing your article – I enjoyed reading it. These are characteristics that define the makeup of a quality individual. One that others will follow them through thick and thin

Timothy G. Johnson

I truly agree. My Boss just accepted another position and I would run through a wall for her. I know that my employees feel the same way about me. We are a team…unfortunately Senior Management is not and they are just the opposite of what you have described. They make rules as they go along, afraid of outside conflict, and ignore all problems hoping that they will eventually just go away. It’s a shame. Our only hope is that we outlast them.

Rachel Niebeling

These are all great things to keep in mind. Thank you for sharing @TracyLMcCabe. Do you have any tips on how to spot them during the interview process? What questions can we ask to weed out the bad from the good?