What it Takes to Be a Leader

Today I attended the second day of the National Academy of Public Administration’s annual fall meeting. One of the sessions I attended, Answer the Questions: How to Lead in Difficult Environments. Leadership for Long Term Planning and/or Short-Term Fixes” had a remarkable conversation on what skills are needed for leadership in the public sector.

The panel included. Timothy B. Clark, Editor and President, Government Executive Magazine, Angela M. Evans, Clinical Professor in Public Policy Practice, Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs, The University of Texas At Austin and Paul Lawrence, Principal, Advisory Services, Ernst and Young, LLP.

During the presentation, I jotted down the skills mentioned by the panel needed, here they are:


A leader has the ablity to know what the next step is, doesn’t always stay the course and understands the landscape in which they are operating in. The panel made this clear that a leader anticipates actions beyond just an organizational level.

Sees Patterns

This was interesting as the panel was discussing how they develop leaders and do not want people to just be checking items off a list. The panel was describing that they want future leaders to have the ability to see the entire picture and find what projects really have meaning to driving an agency forward.


This was described as the ability to think through a problem, find a solution, and debate the positive/negatives of a decision.This is clearly essential to anyone in a leadership position.


This was an interesting discussion brought by the panel. I think at a very basic level, any potential leader wants to be put into a situation where they can make the call. It’s a scary proposition for some, but an essential part of leadership. At some point, you have made a great analysis, but will need to make a decision and understand the consequences.

Strong ethical background

One of the panelist stated that just by committing to public service, there is a level of integrity and decisions need to be made against self interest. This means that a leader needs to be trustworthy, courageous, and empathetic – all important characteristics of a leader.

The panelist also mentioned the tensions of being a leader. Of interest, the tension of knowing when to control verse delegating and operating in areas that are black and white. The panelist also mentioned that a leader should have an inquisitive mind and someone with very strong relational skills.

There was also a comment by a panelist that some of the most succesfull leaders are able to draw a picture of a situation and explain.Taking the time to invest in a picture to display a situation in a new way for an employee, or to engage in a thoughtful discussion, is a critical component of leadership.

Overall, this was a fascinating discussion on leadership and the characteristics that are needed to become a leader within an agency.

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Christopher Whitaker

I always like to add the backbone to the list of ingredients – without a backbone or the strength to stand up for what you believe in, you really can’t be an effective leader

Kathleen Schafer

While these are all good attributes of a leader, I often find the approach to leadership varies between those who advocate for acquiring a host of skills vs. those who focus on bringing out natural talents and strengths to apply in various leadership roles. I fall into the latter category. Once a person understands what are their natural inclinations then they will recognize the differences in how they analyze situations, identify patterns, make decisions, etc. How we do this varies from person to person and different skills are needed at different times. A true leader understands who they are, knows the talents and strengths in their team and allows leadership to move so that the best resources are used in every situation.

My blog on team leadership addresses these issues: http://leadershipconnection.net/blog/achieving-goals-working/

Pat Fiorenza

Hi Kathleen – I completely agree. I recently took a leadership course to wrap up my graduate degree, and the very first thing we did was a self assessment. We took a survey and had to write about leadership experiences to see how we act during different leadership situations (focused on Tuckman’s – normal, storming, forming, performing). It was extremely helpful to know my own tendencies and how I act in different group dynamics – which is critical to lead any team. I was actually surprised when I got my results back. Once I focused on some situations and past experiences, the course really helped me understand and contextualize what kind of leader I am. Especially for me right now, it helped me define what kind of employee I am, and what kind of management I respond well too – which I think is often overlooked in leadership.

Having an attribute is by no means an indication that you are a great leader. You need to understand which attributes to stress with certain individuals, different situations, and understanding the environment you are in. etc. I think that’s the best part of being a leader, it’s not stagnant, you are always improving yourself as a leader and working to bring out the best in your team. It’s something that as far as you advance in your career, you can always improve and think critically about. In fact, I think this process is critical to leadership – to keep growing and learning as a leader. It’s a fascinating area to study.

Thanks for sharing your blog! Will for sure check it out, and feel free to cross-post here on GovLoop, would add some great value to the GovLoop community.

Kathleen Schafer

Thanks Pat . . . in my classes at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, I taught a series of leadership assessment tools to help students understand their style AND how they will continue to grow and develop throughout their careers–it is great to have learned these lessons early in your career as so many people do not.

I post many of my blogs here on GovLoop: https://www.govloop.com/profile/KathleenSchafer . . . it is one of my favorite sites!

Pat Fiorenza

I’ve read your blogs on here, always interesting posts. GovLoop is one of my favorite sites too! The leadership assessment tools where great as a student and fun. My class was filled with several of my really close friends, so it was a very comfortable environment to talk through leadership and personality traits, very beneficial on a lot of levels.

Mark Hammer

As always, I will refer you to Larry Terry’s wonderful book “Leadership of Public Bureaucracies: The administrator as conservator“.

Where most discussion of leadership views the topic through the lens of individuals – and your own post notes the traits of the person who is some sort of generic decontextualized “leader” – Terry asks the question “What does the institution itself require to be true to its mandate?”. They may end up being the exact same traits you list, but they are harnessed to a higher purpose; namely keeing the institution true to itself, on track, and serving the public interest it was created to serve.