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Break Every Chain

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Brescia
May 8, 2015

Collaboration – literally “working together” or to “labor collectively”—has a nice, warm, fuzzy tone to it. “Let’s all collaborate to get this done” or “If we collaborate on this, we’ll get more out of it.”

There are many visible forms of collaboration such as public-public, public-private and public-social. Fuzzy or not, they have at least one thing in common: a shared goal. Teams and organizations can collaborate. But collaboration starts with individuals. And collaboration is an important way to show your caring leadership.

Collaboration involves a definite caring for the people and organizations you collaborate with. Both have to share common beliefs and broad-ranging cultural norms and goals. If not, then the glue is missing that will bond the participants together. No glue results in a rapid collapse of your collaboration.

A school system superintendent friend of mine often says, “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” So if public school leaders want to gain trust and collaborate with their students, it’s fairly clear that they have to demonstrate that they really care for the students. Any student can recognize in a heartbeat whether a school teacher or administrator cares for them.

Jumping to the macro level, appointed and elected officials must demonstrate through their daily visible behaviors that they care for the constituents that they represent. Otherwise, they will be dismissed as simple office-holders with no stake in the game and no commitment to real progress.

Over the next several months, as more and more presidential candidates join the field and begin to make pronouncements, we will certainly see more “I care for you” speeches. Wouldn’t it be great if they dispensed with all that rhetoric and just limit their discourse to personal beliefs and concrete actions that they intend to pursue if elected? Once elected, that’s when the caring really starts – through action and results.

After all, caring in a household context means that two adults undertake stable employment to provide for each other and the children – over the long term. They care for their children by teaching them how to succeed in the world they live in and how to grow as caring leaders themselves.

Caring leadership in the public sector primarily means “acting in the best interests of many represented (or served) people.” These types of leaders actively find out what is important to those that they serve and focus on those things. They collaborate with many of those people to ensure the outcomes of their initiatives on their behalf. They encourage effective communication to keep current on the desires and needs of people.

True collaboration through caring leadership is not the purview of any particular political party. The nice thing about it is that it can be practiced by Democrats and Republicans alike in equal measure. The bad thing is that it can be ignored in equal measure by people who adhere to either party. I will not cite examples because that may just invite agreement or disagreement. It’s a fact that true collaboration and caring leadership are agnostic of any single ideology.

As a public servant, you are not only charged with having a collaborative spirit and behavior. You are also charged with the responsibility of teaching the same to others – mentoring them to collaborate on their projects and initiatives. When I was a newly-arrived military activity commander, I once asked some members of the existing leadership team why they don’t have “town hall” meetings. The general response was, “We don’t have them because we just go out there and get beat up. Everyone whines and gets angry at us.” Dealing with the public was somewhat of a crucible for them. So I restarted and increased the frequency of public interaction as a tactic. It took time, but eventually those meetings were productive and a great vehicle for capturing public sentiment and input.

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Are you a natural collaborator? It doesn’t matter if you are or are not – collaboration is a learned behavior. Look to your immediate boss. Is s/he a collaborator, setting the example? If not, then there is a tendency that you won’t be either.

You are, however, free to (and encouraged to) break the chain – indeed, break every chain as the song goes. You will be liberated as a caring leader. You will increase the size and scope of your personal network. You will succeed beyond your expectations. You will become a “go-to” person. All this from the power of true and caring collaboration.


Author: Bob Brescia serves as the executive director of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute in Odessa, Texas. He has a doctoral degree with distinction in executive leadership from The George Washington University. His experience includes top leadership team roles in education, business, government and defense sectors. Bob’s passion is to teach young Texans about leadership, ethics and public service. Please contact him at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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