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.”

A 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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Phuong Le Callaway, PhD

Definitely, this type of egocentric leadership will create a disengagement and divided workforce. This type of egocentric leadership can only attract the wrong talents for the right positions. This type of egocentric leadership will create a low performance and high turnover workforce. One cannot have a high performance workgroup under this type. It is not the right type of leadership in a knowledge-based society!!!

Peter Sperry

I have to say I admire Cuomo as a leader. As a Schedule C appointee supporting a Senate Confirmed appointee at HUD immediately after his tenure as Secretary, I saw close up the results he left behind. They were actually very impressive. He had been a no nonsense leader who did not accept excuses for substandard results. He had overturned a great many apple carts, exposing the rotton fruit that had been hidden, and broke more than a few rice bowls in the process. But in only a few years he made major progress in overhauling the managment of a very troubled Cabinet Level Department. He did not succeed at everything; but he put in place many management initiatives that we continued despite the change of administrations. No, most of the staff did not particularly like him and let us know that as soon as we took over. He wasn’t there to be liked. He was there to get results, which he did. If your looking for a touchy feely new wave leader whose primary goal is to be loved and admired by his staff and academics writing tracts on modern leadership, Andrew Cuomo is probably not your guy. Try Jerry Brown. His staff love him and they are achiving such wonders in California they make Greece look well governed, If you want an old fashioned kick ass, take names and get results actual leader who will leave New York State better than he found it, stick with Cuomo.

Terrence (Terry) Hill

Simple – government leaders are not held accountable for their leadership (or lack thereof) because their followers are never involved in evaluating their performance. If they were, a true spirit of “servant leadership” would be encouraged.

Dale M. Posthumus

I do not know Cuomo nor do I know HUD, so I will not comment on them directly. Leadership is knowing when to be tough and when to be flexible. It is not new-age to ask a manager to seek the best of his/her employees. Some employees need more oversight, more direction. Others will do their best work when they are trusted to know what to do. Good leadership is knowing when different styles are needed. Cuomo may have been exactly what was needed at HUD when he was there, but the same style may not translate to the operations of the State of New York. Being admired by staff does not necessarily mean you have accomplished little nor does being hated by them mean you are getting theright results.

Bad managers/leaders exist in the private sector, as well. The problem in the public sector is that it is harder to get rid of them.

Phuong Le Callaway, PhD

Effective leaders will lead by examples and demonstrate caring and concerns for employees. They can be tough and results-driven and still win the heart of employees if they pay attention to employees’ concerns and their well-being and if they are fair to all employees. If leaders put a management hat on, I do believe they must understand their employees’ cultural, educational background, and work experience and the organizational culture in order to motivate, to build trust and to engage them in meeting the performance outcomes and results. The whole workforce will be engaged with the leader!

Dannielle Blumenthal

Good vs. bad only exists in relation to a metric. If we’re talking about government officials, by and large, they perform to the metrics that are asked of them:

1) They fall in line

2) They put a good face on things

3) They minimize “trouble”

4) They aim for recognizable “results”

5) They are there around the clock to respond to crises

A government official though is not the same thing as a leader. When the two converge successfully (over a period of time) that is something to be celebrated and learned from (as you have shared these lessons).

Phuong Le Callaway, PhD

Can we hold leaders accountable for their performance and actions (not political appointees!)? Yes, they can improve or transform themselves both in leading and managing if we implement the 360-degree performance feedback. If all employees are given the opportunity to rate their performance, you will hold them accountable for behaviors and results. Of course, we must be fair with them by instituting the right performance elements and performance standards and these performance standards and rating procedures must be valid and job related!!

Clator Butler

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.

Stewart F Gwyn

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, http://www.inc.com/paul-spiegelman/leadership-practices-to-stop-today.html

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.

Jaime Gracia

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?



Josh Nankivel

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).

Phuong Le Callaway, PhD

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!


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.