Stop Trying To Be A Leader If You Are Not!

Some folks were meant to take the oath of office. Some were meant to say: “Do you want fries with that?” They are NOT interchangeable.

Do you have new hires at your agency come in trying to take charge? With all the focus in colleges on “leadership” we have been getting a few twenty-somethings coming in fresh out of school looking to be supervisors and above. One was so obnoxious that he was let go after a few weeks. When we hire GS fives and sevens, we’re looking for infantrymen, not captains. Captains we’ve got.

Sure, like a bench-warmer quarterback, you might just get a chance to throw that game-winning touchdown pass in the playoff game. Bide your time. Back when I was a GS 7 in the Defense Dept. a call came from the Pentagon late Friday afternoon that they were sending over three generals for a briefing. Surprise! Everyone over my grade was gone by 3pm. I couldn’t very well tell three generals to come Monday instead, so I pulled the info together and gave them what they wanted. Luckily it was my area. I got commended.

The other side of this coin is the high level hire from “outside.” Don’t you just love a new boss who was an executive in some company and knows absolutely nothing about how things are done in the government? Their style is often dictatorial and they have no patience for inter or intra-agency protocols. We had one lady come in and lay down a whole bunch of arbitrary rules like a dress code and an open door policy; not hers, yours. She finally ran afoul of upper management (big surprise there) and left to seek employment elsewhere. On her last evening as she walked out each and every door slammed shut as she passed it; like a 21 gun salute. I love the organization and determination that took.

One aspect of leadership is the ability, often innate, to inspire others to follow. If after trying you find that you only inspire contempt, help us all out here and find another line of work.

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Avatar photo Bill Brantley

A bit in-your-face advice but I can appreciate the sentiment and emphasize with the situation that may have led to this post. It’s a great temptation to be Captain Kirk but his success was because he had a great crew to depend on (and inexhaustible supply of Red Shirts). I think a key attribute of a great leader is that he or she is committed to helping those under him to be great leaders in their own right. I’m not sure who said it but you can tell a great teacher because his or her students surpasses the teacher.

David Broadwell

great comment by Bill Brantley. Anyone can complain, a boyscout can do that, but not everyone can think of a solution and implement it.


Part of taking on a new role/job is being able to adapt. I’ve found that some organizations (government included here!) require baby steps. Coming in and radically changing everything all at once more often than not lands that leader leading a group of one – themself…alone, with no support and no one implementing anything. Harder to get things done this way – in my opinion and observation!

Scott Primeau

Ed, that’s very thought provoking and the comments have been great on both sides.

Just to add my two cents, what about a different take:

If you want to be a leader, start leading.

I think leaders can be found at any level in an organization. A strong top-level leader should support leadership from other employees.

What does it take to lead? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Lead by example;
2. Empower the people around you:
a. Share information;
b. Educate;
3. Do your part;
4. Take responsibility & be accountable;
5. Have patience…

Bruce Rodman

Patience is almost always a virtue. The key is to groom younger people to someday assume those leadership positions. Too often, it seems that senior executives and managers are too insecure to prepare people to take over for them some day, fearful that day may come sooner than they would like. As a result, we complain about the difficulties in recruiting the next generation of government employees but when we do hire someone, we are most concerned about “keeping them in their place.” If they don’t see an opportunity for advancement, they are likely to move on – either to another agency or out of government altogether – which is probably in no one’s best interests. I can say this because, after 18 years of service at a federal agency, I am still considered an “outsider.”

Douglas Gerard

The key to becoming a good leader is to be a good follower first before stepping up to the corner office. I have seen way too many people promoted too fast to gain that experience, only to crash and burn when they ran into senior leaders who did have that learning.

That does not mean being a simple peon and following what supervisors tell you without thinking however. I have been a pest asking why and where the information came from for years, earning a reputation of being a bull dog for information in several agencies now. That earned me a leadership position in the military, and soon I will be moving up to a leadership position in the civil service because I was a good follower first, not an instant captain but someone who started as a private in the trenches who earned that oak leaf of silver!

Ed Albetski

Thanks for all your comments! I’m glad I was able to get folks thinking about leadership in general. I think too many platitudes are thrown around and not enough analysis is really done concerning this ability. I really believe it is not for everyone.

The best boss I ever had treated his staff as individuals. He gave the “atta-boys” to those that needed them and barked at those who needed that. His talent was the ability to assess what each person needed to help them work at their optimum. There will always be those officers whose men will gladly follow them to certain death and there are others whose men frag them the first time their back is turned.

The Peter Principle is rising to your level of incompetence; you’ll keep getting promoted until you come to a job you don’t do well. When that job is management, you wreck not only your own career, but often the careers of those under you.

Kenneth Goldman

Different organizations have different cultures. I work for a Navy lab. A long time ago I started, as a GS-5 engineer. I was leading a team of five engineers and technician on an at-sea test within about three months of arriving, not because I was so extraordinary, but because that is what was needed. I learned how to be a leader very quickly. These days, the engineers are hired at a higher level, but for those willling to take on responsibility, they will get it very quickly For the most part this “throw willing people into the deep-end of the pool” approach has worked well for us, but I can’t speak for other organizations.


This post made me remember a heated discussion in a graduate-leve leadership course. People felt strongly on two sides: Some believed that leadership skills cannot be learned- that good leaders are born that way; the other side believed you can learn to be a good leader, but as others have posted here, it often takes time. It also reminded me of one of my favorite leadership quotes (I hope I have attributed it properly):
“As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honor and praise. The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate … When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves!'”— Lao-tsu

Kevin Lanahan

Outside hires should have a clear understanding of why they are being hired. Some are hired to clean house and change everything.

Most, especially in government, are there to improve processes and communications. I don’t think you can do this without understanding what is already in place, and that requires some time to listen and analyze.

Gen-Y and millennials entering the workforce will have some great ideas, but they have to be implemented with the help of management and coworkers. The sooner they can understand the culture of their work environment, the sooner they will have the support of their coworkers to make changes and improvements.


Ed Thanks for quoting me acatecurly. Instead of focusing on what is happening in Washington or in being preoccupied by the drone of negative news, invest your worry time in constructive action. What are you doing to upgrade your strategic skills? How can you position your services for those who need what you have to offer? Position, Perform and Perist. Those who thrive in the tough times are into action. Remember that the research on optimism finds that we earn that attitude through a track record of overcoming obstacles. The more obstacles you’ve overcome, the more likely you will do it again. True optimists are realists. They want to know what they are facing so they can get busy coping with how to get through it. Hope your readers enjoy the insights you will be sharing from what I hope will be the first of many leadership events.

Scott Span

Though I can respect your opinions and years of “dues paying” service, times have changed. Much of what you mention speaks to why the government lags behind the private sector in talent acquisition and high performance. I have worked in several government agencies. The government will begin to lost much of its workforce (Baby Boomers) due to retirement beginning in 2010. If the government remains to rigid and resistant to change and refuses to adapt to attract and retain younger talent, then they will cease to be able to function at maximum efficiency to serve the public. Younger talent will not stand for not being challenged from day one, they will don’t thrive in a hierarchy type of environment where years of service and not performance are rewarded. This is not to say that they don’t understand they need to earn promotions, however assuming they are meeting demands they won’t wait around forever.

I agree that much of Gen Y and younger do have the attitude of wanting to be leaders sooner than later, however, this should not be looked at as a bad thing. If organizations provide the proper coaching and training to their talent, not only to help groom them with skill sets but also to provide them an overview and understanding of the culture and procedures, then assuming they are high performers their is no reason why they can’t climb the ladder. I have some friends who graduated graduate school a few years ago. One entered into a government position only because the agency offering the position allowed him to skip a few GS levels and had a training program in place to mentor him. Another Gen Y friend refused a few government roles because she felt the culture was one that wouldn’t challenge her and allow her to grow in her career in the same ways that a similar role in private sector could. The culture of “…this is how we did it and what we had to go through therefore you should to…” is outdated. Government is shedding it’s workforce and needs to compete for younger talent with the private sector, not push them away, especially if the government wishes to continue to operate an efficient and high performing manner.

Douglas Gerard


Those are the points that many who support intern programs and direct hiring are using in their briefs. The problem with that is it become the “me, me, me” program. It pits the new hires and interns against the journeymen employees, frequently with the active leadership from supervisors who see the newbies as more “open minded” and willing to do anything and everything they are told in their drive to advance.

That is a recipe for disaster, because the mindless obedience does not bestow wisdom, and ignoring the experience of employees who often have seen multiple decades of change is to discount their wisdom as worthless.

This is not a hit on interns, I was one a few years ago with the Navy. Its based on what I observed both as an intern and after I left that program. When I first became an intern, my supervisor literally sat me down in his office and told me to not listen to any of the journeymen, that they were lazy and incompetent, and that “interns like you are the future, not those losers”. If I had been a young college grad with no experience, that might have been gospel, but as a military and civil service veteran not so much. I replied to him that I disagreed with that opinion, and began a short but very interesting relationship. He was fired about 6 months later and left the civil service, while I am still out here doing the job.

In my current agency, I see the most advanced and challenging work being assigned to interns while I and other more experienced employees are given the rote and banal work. This is done to give the interns experience, but results in one of the higher rates of do-overs and problems that I have ever seen.

Tegan Glasheen

Yes, there are some bad bosses and gratingly impatient upstarts out there. No argument. However, I may be misunderstanding your tone, but what I’m getting is umbrage at any effort to shake things up. Obviously that can go overboard. But “impatience with protocols?” Who isn’t impatient with them? They should always be – constructively – challenged, not just accepted. Bide your time? Again, maybe that’s not your meaning, but it comes off as dismissive of new-hires. It does not reflect the increasingly flattened, non-hierarchical system of idea generation we find in the world today and that government, in some ways at least, should look to emulate.

Peter Sperry

Interesting points but keep in mind that sometimes you need a commander rather than a leader. Napolean was an inspirational leader beloved by his men. Wellington was a no nonsense commander usually despised by his men. One left Waterloo a victor the other a prisoner. Military, corporate and government history offers innumerable examples of commanders who drove, rather than led, their organizations to victory. It is certainly nice if an executive can help their subordinates grow, feel empowered, achieve self actualization, yada, yada. But their number one task is to ensure the organization achieves its objectives. We have seen a stunning growth in the past 30 years of the myth of the insprational leader and the denigration of the autocratic commander. The rhetoric sounds good; but is it real? Henry Ford was tyranical bas—- who not only built Ford Moters but reengineered it with the Model A when necessary and left the corporation strong and prosperous. Rick Wagner is a friendly insprirational gentleman who led General Moters into bankruptcy. Given the challanges currently facing government, perhaps we need few less leaders and a few more commanders.

David Dejewski

I highly recommend the following book to those with an interest in the journey of leadership. This book became a favorite of mine after the first read. Many reads later, the tattered pages and worn cover still hold a place of honor under the front seat of my car. I’ve lent it many times and it never fails to return lot’s of good feedback.

The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership Powered Company

In a nutshell, the book describes the journey a leader must go through from learning to manage self, to managing others, to manage managers, to managing functions, manage business, groups, enterprise, etc. – from self to CEO. There’s a decision that people must make along the way to go deep or to go wide. Deep is for those who lean towards technical mastery. Wide is for general management and the CEO track.

This book takes the reader through each stage: the skill requirements, the way they spend their time, and the work values. It also helps us understand dysfunctions that can (and often do) occur along the way, and what to do about them.

It doesn’t leave out institutional failures (failures in the system surrounding emerging leaders): leaving a person in the wrong job for too long, cloning dysfunctional leaders in the likeness of the dysfunctional leaders that came before them, etc.

One thing I particularly like about Ed’s original post is an implied acknowledgment that there is a necessary “cooking time” for each stage of leadership development. If an emerging leader skips over any one of the stages too quickly – before they’ve mastered the skill requirement, time application, or work values of that stage (as in a case where someone gets promoted too quickly or beyond their capability) they end up with holes in their foundation. This leads to dysfunction that can lead to real problems.

If this subject is important to you, then this book will be a good companion. If you do read it, I’d love to hear your feedback. 🙂

The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership Powered Company

PS – The hard cover is great for this book. It gets handed around a lot.