What is the role of a leader in government?

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This topic contains 35 replies, has 14 voices, and was last updated by  Dan Munz 9 years, 5 months ago.

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  • #133174

    David Dejewski

    I’ve recently had a lot of discussions about leadership in government.
    Some people saying leaders are figure heads – that the real credit goes to the “implementers.”
    Some people saying that leaders should inspire, provide vision, and the road map for getting where we need to go.
    Some people saying the leader should listen to the organization and do what’s most needed.
    And so on.

    What’s your opinion of what leaders should be in government?

  • #133244

    Dan Munz

    The best leaders I’ve seen:

    1. Create “running room” with more senior executives for their best people to do what they do best.

    2. Minimize individual players’ weaknesses and maximize their strengths. (This is a cliche, but it’s 100% true.)

    3. Provide an overarching vision and clear conditions for success.

    4. Empower their staff by making sure they know what they need to, while keeping nonsense off their plates.

    5. Never, ever, ever ask someone to spend time doing something without it being clear why that thing is worth that person’s time.

    Of course, the honest truth is that these rules assume a leader with a staff that’s universally committed, engaged, and talented. That’s not always the case, inside or outside government. The best leaders trust and rely on their teams; having a team you can’t trust or rely on makes it genuinely hard to be a really great leader.

  • #133242

    Mark Hammer

    I cannot recommend Larry Terry’s book “Leadership of Public Bureaucracies” highly enough. Terry lays out, in meticulous (and extremely helpful) detail the many things that a bureaucratic leader needs to do to maintain the authoritativeness of their agency. He notes that the authorities, given by law, will only take you so far. A public institution’s authoritativeness, in turn, depends on it remaining true to itself and true to its mission and mandate.

    Part of that involves not overstepping your mandate, and venturing into areas that are not the strength (nor embedded in the history) of your organization. Part of that involves speaking up for your mandate when the opportunity presents itself, and reminding both employees, and other stakeholders what the mandate/mission is. Part of it involves being a voice for the history of the institution, and shepherding knowledge transfer within the organization.

    So, yeah, there are wads of other people who “get things done”. The role of the leader is to make sure they are all pointed in the same, and hopefully right, direction, and keep the institution from drifting.

  • #133240

    Steve Ressler

    Another key role of a leader in government is to get the team the resources they need to do the job.

    That could be budget, staffing, or pushing through rules/lawyers/policy needed.

  • #133238

    David Dejewski

    Mark, I like where this is going. I didn’t consider the leaders role as maintaining the “authoritativeness” of their agency.

    I looked up the book you referenced above “Leadership of Public Bureaucracies” and hyper-linked it here for anyone who’s interested. It looks like a good read.

  • #133236

    David Dejewski

    Being able to trust the team… This is an interesting thought.

    Now that you mention it, I wonder. Is it the leader’s responsibility to make their team “trust worthy,” is it the team’s responsibility to prove themselves so? Is it some combination, or is it possible that some teams simply are not, and never will be – no matter what the leader does – trust worthy or interested in being trusted?

  • #133234

    David Dejewski

    A role with which you, no doubt, have experience, Steve. 😉

  • #133232

    Interesting discussion here. Only thing I would add: Now more than ever, leaders should focus on unifying the troops, engaging them to go above and beyond, and increasing morale by publicly and privately thanking them for their contributions.

    Editorial comment: An internal communications function is critical to enabling leaders achieve this goal. Government agencies need, and lack, robust support in this area.

  • #133230

    Scott Collins

    Leaders focus on priorities and remove the clutter.

  • #133228

    Victoria L. Beatley

    Seems that we need to challenge ourselves and our staff’s through fostering an environment of collaboration and communication. Leadership growth occurs through mentoring as well.

  • #133226

    Kacie Galbraith

    I’m reading “The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership” by Steven Sample. He makes an interesting point about leaders needing to hire people whose skills make up for his own shortcomings. He stresses the need to refrain from simply surrounding yourself with ‘yes’ men/women in order to have a successful organization in the long-run. The problem is that many people are uncomfortable hiring those who are not only more competent than themselves in a particular area, but more competent overall. Sample says that the leader who is willing to hire those who are ‘better’ than he is, in many respects, will have greater long-term success.

  • #133224

    Charles A. Ray

    There’s something to be said for most of what you’ve written, except the part about figure heads. True leaders are visionaries; they set the direction and then empower followers to get there, and they are also good listeners who do not only what’s needed, but what’s right. As for who gets credit, an effective leader realizes that there’s enough credit to go around, and they make sure the ‘implementers’ get due credit for their achievements.

  • #133222

    Mark Hammer

    Excellent points. I think it also bears noting that hiring people who make up for one’s own shortcomings implies two very important things:

    1) Knowing yourself and the organization/institution well enough to know what those shortcomings are, especially as it pertains to the objectives and needs of the organization/institution you lead,

    2) Being willing to relinquish some control, and trust those around you who have the competencies and knowledge you know you lack to do what needs doing.

    I often tell colleagues that the secret to effective management and leasership is simple: Surround yourself with capable people, let them know exactly what needs to get done and why, give them the resources (both tangible and informational) to get that job done, and stay the hell out of the way.

    Most of my worst experiences in government stemmed from leaders who didn’t know what they didn’t know, and weren’t willing to trust the experts to do the things they were expert in.

  • #133220

    Mark Hammer

    …do what’s right. I like that.

    I’ve been looking at competency profiles and selection tools for senior managers for the past 14 years, and you know what you never see in the list of competencies?: courage. Which is kind of ironic since when we think of “leaders”, we tend to think in terms of military images or similar, and the “leader” is the person who goes first. They should be at the front of the pack, because if they’re at the back, and just delegating, then they’re merely a manager, aren’t they?

    We need managers too, and its an important job, but if you’re gonna be a leader, lead, and do so courageously…which means doing the right thing when it needs doing, and being there on the front line standing up for the right thing.

  • #133218

    David Dejewski

    Dannielle – you said it. Excellent.

  • #133216

    David Dejewski

    Awesome! It is important for any leader to continue to mature, improve their skills, and give back. Thanks for raising these points!

  • #133214

    David Dejewski

    Well said, Mark.

  • #133212

    David Dejewski

    I am all for doing the right thing. I don’t think we see enough of it.
    I am also for courage. We need a lot more of that.

    I’m noodling on the “be-out-in-front” idea. For sure, there are many leaders, growing or otherwise, who need to step up more. However, the leader, the team, and the circumstances might call for a something else. Courage can be expressed in many ways. Sometimes, it take more courage for a leader to deliberately step back and empower someone else to step forward.

    The leader that spends lot of time out in front may get comfortable there. At worst, a “leader” may become dependent on being out in front. At which point, a deeper level of leadership may be in jeopardy and the organization they lead may be at risk.

    Sometimes, courage means turning down the “alpha” and allowing room someone else to drive. Sometimes, it means being there quietly, and being okay with whatever comes along as a result.

    Maybe I’m talking about wisdom here, but it definitely takes courage to accept what wisdom tells us sometimes. Especially if the leader is a natural alpha with a lifetime of being at the front of the pack.

  • #133210

    Peter Sperry

    Leaders in government, or any other endevor, need to focus on procusing results. One thing we can learn from military history, which chronicles the losers as well as the winners, is that losers often demonstrate many of the traits we associate with great leaders. Hannibal, Napoleon, Lee, Custer, and Paulus all had great vision, inspired fanatical dedication among subordinates and laid out a road map for victory. None of them achieved it. All were defeated by opponents whose leadership skills would be considered close to nonexistent by modern warm fuzzy standards. The common thread which led Scipio, Wellington, Grant, Crazy Horse and Zhukov to victory was a fanatical focus on results. None of these leaders ever allowed themselves or their subordinates to become sidetracked by competing priorities or to elevate support tasks above the primary goal of achieving victory. Outside of military history, we only tend to study successful leaders, almost all of whom have a fanatical focus on results in addition to the rest of the visionary inspirational skills we prize so highly. I often wonder how many coproate or govenmental inspirational visionaries we never hear of because they lacked the fanatical focus on achieving results.

  • #133208

    David Dejewski

    Peter – results are critical. No question.

    Can you imagine a scenario where a leader should consider sacrificing short term results in favor of long term results? Perhaps to grow his/her team into a stronger unit?

    I wonder how many unreported trade-offs guys like Grant, Crazy Horse or Zhukov made in order to be collectively strong enough to achieve the big outcomes they did.

  • #133206

    Peter Sperry

    There actually is an example from the Civil War which is still debated to this day.

    When General McClellen took command of the Army of the Potomac, it was in miserable shape. The men were poorly trained and almost completely disorganized. He decided to forego an immediate attack on Richmond and instead initiated extensive training for the troops, essentially an early version of what we would consider basic training. After several months, Lincoln became impatient to the point of asking “If General McClellen is not using the army, perhaps I could borrow it?” Under pressure from Lincoln, McClellen launched the pennisular campaign of 1861 sooner than planned with soldiers not trained to his standards. It ended in disasterous defeat for the Union forces. McClellen contended he could have achieved victory if he had been left alone to complete the training and conduct a proper attack. Lincoln and most (but not all) historians felt McClellen would have been more sucessful if he had focused more on battle and less on team building. I wrote an early paper on the campaign and came to the conclusion that while McClellen was slow, the campaign probably would have succeeded if he had been allowed to proceed as planned (Lincoln pulled 200,000 men from the atttack at the last moment to defend Washington from a phantom attack which never materialized and then pulled another 100,000 for a silly diversion in the Shenandoah Valley).

  • #133204

    Kera Bartlett

    This is a wonderful discussion topic! Leaders can really occupy any of these roles along the LEADERSHIP SPECTRUM. However, DECLARATIVE LEADERSHIP, as explored recently in a seminar we offered at our offices, has incredible potential to lead with vision and by example. Check it out!

  • #133202

    Mark Hammer

    As cogent as examples from military or sports team leadership might be, I think they can do us a disservice when contemplating leadership in government. And the reason is that where leadership “for results” in those arenas revolves around success or failure in specific time-limited events, leadership of institutions revolves much more around all the stuff that happens in between events. Not that it doesn’t take some special qualties and skills to be successful with time-limited events – clearly it does – but government, as an institution, is mostly the stuff in between.

    And as for David’s earlier point about courage to let someone else take the reins, I think that’s where courage and trust meet. My own earlier point about surrounding oneself with competent people, identifying the mission for them clearly, equipping them to achieve it, and getting the hell out of the way, assumes that effective leadership depends very much on trust in the people you lead. It’s not “courage” in the sense of risking all, or going where none have gone before, but it takes a bit more than “regular trust” to lead in a way that lets your people do what they do best, relying on their own gut, and what they know of your vision. That’s why I say its the border between trust and courage.

    For several cycles of the triennial government-wide federal employee survey we do here in Canada, one of the questions we had asked was how many supervisors you had during the preceding 3 years. When I looked more closely at the data, one of the more interesting things I noticed was that those folks reporting more supervisors within the same period of time, also tended to report less autonomy and encouragement to take iniative, poorer communication with their supervisor, and noticeably less perceived support for career development.

    The picture it formed was that new supervisors (i.e., new to that work-unit, not necesarily new to supervision) likely hit the ground running, keep their employees on a short leash to avoid things getting out of control (or feeling like they are), and are less likely to invest in staff because they have little sense of who to invest in, how to invest in them, and why to invest in them.

    Now, admittiedly, we’re talking about one’s immediate supervisor here, and in this dataset that could be anyone from a front-line supervisor to a CEO, depending on what level your own job is at. But I think the punchline is likely the same at all levels: people in leadership roles take time to acquire the sort of trust it takes in your staff to have that “courage” noted above. I don’t know how much time it takes, but it ain’t instantaneous, and it’s not a personal shortcoming if you don’t have it a week after taking the reins. It IS a personal shortcoming, though, if you don’t strive for it.

  • #133200

    David Dejewski

    If I ever get to down to Woodbridge, You get a free beverage of your choice from me!

    Just having that kind of historical information on recall is impressive!

    I bet a lot of leaders have felt like I imagine McClellen felt.

    • When a boss pushes me to throw one of my divisions into a battle they are not ready for…
    • Or when a division is ready, but the impact of their success would overwhelm other Divisions if I pushed them too hard and fast…

    I suppose we’ve surfaced another role for leaders: to be tuned in to their team and to the organization well enough to judge timing of campaigns and other actions.

    I have long said that leaders are getting paid for their judgement. McClellen makes a great case for that.

    Another thought: Lincoln was no slouch. Yet, your story shows that he clearly did not have the on-the-ground intel or judgment to make the right call. From Lincoln’s perspective, the lesson seems to be: empower your leaders and trust their judgement. Is that another role for good leaders?

    One of my favorite books: The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership Powered Company by Ron Charan, describes the role of a leader as changing as they mature. The book maps out what is expected at each level of maturity in terms of how the leader should focus their skills, the ways they apply their time and their work values.

    Perhaps the right answer for each leader is correlated to where they are in their leadership maturity. The role of a junior level leader with few charges is different from the role a senior level leader should play when responsible for multiple divisions or an agency or company. I have certainly found this to be true in my experience.

  • #133198

    David Dejewski

    Mark – I think the distinction between specific time-limited events and what happens between events is useful. Different times call for different things, don’t they?

    Re: Courage and trust. I appreciate your observation that these two meet at the point where we give up the reigns and empower someone else to drive. I think most people would agree with that.

    What kind of courage would Lincoln have had to muster to rely on the judgement of McClellen in Peter’s example? He not only had to trust his General, but he also had to be willing to be held accountable for his General’s actions.

    I don’t envision Lincoln sitting in the oval office unmolested during the civil war. I suspect he was under a lot of pressure from within as well as from every group in existence in his day.

    I suggest courage because while we can delegate action, we can not delegate accountability. If General McClellen failed, Lincoln is seen as a failure.

    If my Branch Chief makes a mess, it’s my mess. I must not only trust, but I must be willing to put myself and my reputation at risk by letting my Branch Chief exercise judgement. I have to be willing to step forward for action, for inaction, and for action that is different than I would have taken myself. That takes courage.

    Thank you for stimulating another thought with your comment about “surrounding yourself with competent people…” I have found government to be somewhat unique. Rarely have I been able to chose my staffs. I walk into a position with a title and I inherit staffs – with all of their strengths and weaknesses. I often have to adjust my strategy based on what I am given to work with. I would be foolish not to.

    Ideally, I would like to pick and chose competent people, have the budget to equip them to achieve it, and be able to step out of the way. In some cases, however, what I have been given to work with is simply not up to the task. There is always education, resource gathering, brokering deals with other leaders, etc.to contend with. Sometimes I have to let go of the goals I had when I showed up because they were made with an assumption that I would have what I needed to get the job done. When I correct my assumption, I also have to change my expectations. This is a hard lesson.

    In my own company I chose to hire (and fire) who I want to. In my government role, I must field the team I am given.

  • #133196

    Mark Hammer

    “In my government role, I must field the team I am given.”

    I’m smiling right now, because in our Westminister system of government, where the prime minister and the entire cabinet are simply elected members of Parliament, the PM is in exactly the same position. Their cabinet is comprised of elected officials. WHO is going to get elected? There are some safe bets, and some not-so-safe ones, and they pick their cabinet from whatever strolls in triumphant through the door following the election. Oftimes, it’s a forced fit between a given MP’s areas of expertise, and the cabinet portfolio they are placed in….because no one else with enough policy-making experience is available.

    I mean, you’d think that being saddled in the way you describe is the penalty we are forced to pay by not being at the top, but even those at the top often have to make do with the team they have.

    One of life’s little thorns….

    Personally, I’ve avoided any management or supervisory opportunities whenever they were presented, preferring to be a “grunt”, though I try to exert a leadership influence in whatever projects I find myself attached to. I like to tell my own management that I fell about management the way Jane Goodall feels about chimps. She respects them deeply. She enjoys working with them and dwelling among them. She finds them a subject of endless fascination, and she works ceaselessly for their welfare and protection. But she has no great urge to be one.

  • #133194

    David Dejewski

    LOL! Thanks for the laugh!
    I will forever more think of myself as a chimp being observed in my natural habitat. LOL. I’ll imagine a room full of Jane Goodall’s looking back at me with their notebooks in hand. I was getting tired of the “imagine-your-audience-in-their-underwear” bit anyway.

    From now on, I’m bringing bananas to my staff meetings. Seriously. It’ll be a secret and a great way to amuse myself. When I need to chuckle, I’m going to scratch my arm pit. LOL

    I think flexibility is as important in leadership and, to some degree in management, as it is anywhere else. A good ball player goes into the game with a play in mind, but adapts to whatever comes his or her way. With some practice and experience, adapting happens without really thinking about it.

    I’ve often bemoaned the fact that I got “the bottom of the barrel” when I stood up a new function or division. When other directors are forced to give up staff to make a new project go, they tend to select from the bench. I don’t think anyone ever sent me their first string players – unless they were forced to do so. We adapt.

    It’s not always a bad thing. Many people who didn’t do well in other areas bloomed in my area. That’s a cool thing to be part of.

    Anyway, I’m thinking we added a new role to our leader profile – flexibility and the ability to make lemonade out of lemons.

  • #133192

    Denise Petet


    Figure heads are not leaders. By definition, they’re there to look pretty or as a reward for past alliances.

    There are different kinds of leaders.

    there’s the ‘we have a task, i’m going to make it happen and you’re going to help me’ kind…the ones in charge of a specific goal at a time. If they’re what I term good ones, they surround themselves with a team whose talents and abilities they trust and know and it’s a team effort with one person calling the shots.

    then there’s the ‘here every day’ leader. In my version of the world 🙂 , that kind of leader is a person that helps his/her subordinates grow and learn and develop. They teach people how to lead by example. They get you what you need to do your job. They’re not threatened by an employee growing beyond them. they support in public, scold in private. they eventually train their own successor.

    The former leaders get the most press. Largely because it’s easy to grade them by the tasks they perform. but the latter is the kind of leader that stands the test of time and has staying power. they’re kinda the unsung heroes because, often, when you have a leader like that, their section or group just runs and goes and gets the job done, usually so well management kinda forgets that they’re there.

    I think the biggest weakness government or even the private sector has is the ‘insecure middle manager’. One that clings to power, loves being in charge, hates being responsible and often spends their days working their own angle than working towards the good of the organization as a whole.

    You get too many insecure managers or figure heads and your organization will still run, but not to its fullest potential. largely because the employees know they’re being ‘led’ by someone inferior. and while they do their jobs, you usually end up losing good employees as they go off to find greener pastures.

  • #133190

    Mark Hammer

    Now you have me chuckling.

    The scenario you described, with respect to the human capital one has to work with, got me thinking. Its not necessarily a clean split, but there is a spectrum across organizations, and sometimes branches within organizations, ranging from “silos” where a given manager is confined to the staff they have to work with, to a more “matrix” organization where people move across projects and are not fundamentally a unit-member that simply awaits the tasks for that unit.

    I suppose it requires a qualitatively different approach to planning out the work of that organization or branch, when its internal re-organization, for purposes of completing the work, becomes one of the degrees of freedom one has available to work with. Certainly, functioning optimally as a leaser in that context, might require a greater awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of one’s workforce, as well as a keen sense of the organizational priorities.

  • #133188

    David Dejewski

    Henry Minzberg identified ten separate roles in managerial work, each role defined as an organized collection of behaviors belonging to an identifiable function or position. He separated these roles into three subcategories: interpersonal contact (1, 2, 3), information processing (4, 5, 6) and decision making (7-10).

    1. FIGUREHEAD: the manager performs ceremonial and symbolic duties as head of the organization;
    2. LEADER: fosters a proper work atmosphere and motivates and develops subordinates;
    3. LIAISON: develops and maintains a network of external contacts to gather information;
    4. MONITOR: gathers internal and external information relevant to the organization;
    5. DISSEMINATOR: transmits factual and value based information to subordinates;
    6. SPOKESPERSON: communicates to the outside world on performance and policies.
    7. ENTREPRENEUR: designs and initiates change in the organization;
    8. DISTURBANCE HANDLER: deals with unexpected events and operational breakdowns;
    9. RESOURCE ALLOCATOR: controls and authorizes the use of organizational resources;
    10. NEGOTIATOR: participates in negotiation activities with other organizations and individuals.

    Are these 10 roles sufficient to describe the role of a leader in government or do we have our own list?

  • #133186

    Mark Hammer

    Not to keep beating the same horse with the same stick, but that Larry Terry book would suggest appending CONSERVATOR to the list: maintains the integrity of adherence to the mission. So, all of those other 10 functions (and as bright and prophetic as Mintzberg is, there is no reason why it has to be 10) cover a lot, but none of them necessarily pertain to maintaining the overall coherence of the organization.

  • #133184

    David Dejewski

    Good point, Mark. I didn’t read the book, so help me make sure I understand this. By Conservator, you mean basically keeping all the efforts pointing in the same direction – towards a stated goal.

  • #133182

    Mark Hammer

    Keeping the organization true to its mandate, making sure everyone comprehends the mandate/mission, making sure the organization does not go recklessly beyond its mandate/mission and attends to all relevant aspects of its mandate/mission, thereby insuring its capacity to be the trusted authority on whatever matters pertain to its mandate/mission, for all stakeholders.

    So, yeah, pointed in the same direction is a big chunk of that.

  • #133180

    Scott O. Konopasek

    What a great thread! There are some excellent observations and wisdom here.

    I often think of sports coaches when I try to explain or define leadership. Its seems to me that the most effective leaders are those who take a collection of individuals (players, employees that you have chosen or those that you have inherited, co workers or others) and, through a variety of personal attributes, behaviors and techniques, transforms that collection into a unitary team that is far greater than the sum of the abilities of the individuals. The names of many great coaches from various sports come to mind.

    While an analysis of the personal attributes, behaviors and techniques of successful leaders is insightful, it is important to understand that there is not a single formula that will lead a organization, group, and collection of individuals to success. Each situation requires a unique application and combination of leadership skills and abilities. The most effective leaders are not “one trick ponies” that always employ the same set of leadership behaviors; rather, the most effective leaders have and employ a wide repertoire of leadership qualities, behaviors and techniques as the situation requires.

    There are no wrong ways or right ways to lead. There are only effective and ineffective ways to lead. What works one day or with one group may not work the next. I guess I am saying that there is no science of leadership– only the art of knowing the whens and hows as well as the whats.

  • #133178

    David Dejewski

    Kacie – this is an excellent idea. Have you seen this at work since you read the book?

  • #133176

    Abed Ali

    I think they need to facilitate and empower their employees cross-boundary collaboration. Spend a lot of time outside their organization making connections that may inform/provide creative solutions to the problems their agency faces.

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