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A Different Take on Leadership Qualities

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

By James Bourey
March 21, 2021

When invited to speak to public administration students, I frequently speak about leadership qualities. With all that has been written about leadership in public administration, I find there is often much missing from traditional views. This column is an abridged version of the lengthier text in my book, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager. It includes 14 qualities that experience taught me are critically important for local government managers and apply to other managers as well. Many you will recognize but some may be novel to you.

The first, communication, will not come as a surprise. Beyond the often mentioned need to be a good listener and seek first to understand, then to be understood, it is more evident now than ever before for a leader to be fully present. Electronic devices are a great distraction and we must renew our efforts to pay full attention to those with which we are communicating. It is also not enough to understand but we must communicate that we understand. Leaders must also must be adept at speaking with groups of all sizes. The skills and techniques necessary for this are varied but must be mastered for each setting.

More non-traditional is the need to have enthusiasm and a high energy level. Leaders need to inspire the team to act as much as a football or basketball coach. Managers must be cheerleaders. Enthusiasm and high energy are contagious. People’s outlook and action reflect their leader.

Leaders must be good at facilitation and collaboration. A key role for managers is to sort through different viewpoints and fashion approaches that work for different individuals or groups. The ability to bring people together and lead them through a process of dialog and give and take is vital to reaching solutions.

The ability to focus is not often recognized as important for leaders. As a local government manager, one needs to move from one setting to another, with some transitions being particularly challenging. A manager may go from a sensitive personnel meeting to a large group presentation where he or she need to be lighthearted and enthusiastic. Leaders need to be able to dial into the situation and have the appropriate demeanor and focus.

While a manager does have staff resources to work through, he or she will need to use his or her analytic ability to work through some tough issues.

There is no more important quality than emotional intelligence for successful leaders. The ability to have a clear and accurate understanding of how others perceive you, to be able to interrelate to others in a positive, constructive manner and to be in control of your actions and reactions in difficult situations is critical. You also need to not be shy about making contributions as you interact with others.

Leaders must have self-confidence. People will not follow someone who appears to struggle to find their sense of direction. Yet, they cannot be self-absorbed or arrogant either.

At the same time, leaders must be selfless. For local government managers, it cannot be about themselves; it must be about the community they serve.

While it may sound like a contradiction, managers must have patience with a sense of urgency. That is, they need to be able to communicate the importance of doing work and projects in a timely fashion and instill a need for immediacy, yet also give people the sense that they are patient with them.

Local government managers must have a strong level of commitment to their organization and community. Councils, staff and residents can sniff out any ambivalence. Managers must be all in with the community they work for, even though they realize they may need to move on someday.

While managers need to have confidence and be committed to stay the course under pressure, they also must demonstrate flexibility when it is best to consider different approaches. They need to know when to push hard on a recommendation and when to back off at least at that time.

Being a local government manager is not for the faint hearted; one must have fortitude. Managers can face angry citizens regarding their recommendations. Even though it may be best for the community, residents may not see it that way. Additionally, the council majority may be in favor but one or two council members who disagree may make things very difficult for the manager.

Having good judgement is most critical for leaders. It can be debated how much good judgement can be learned and how much is a quality people come by due to their cumulative life experience and genetics. Some seem to have a wonderful sense of judgement and others struggle mightily.

Finally, there is the trait of being authentic. Staff and councils look for a level of openness and truthfulness. Managers can demonstrate authenticity, at times, by showing vulnerability as well as describing to others their motivations and personal aspirations.

I am sure the reader may have a quality or two that I missed, but if city and county managers possess these qualities, I am convinced they can be excellent leaders for their organizations.


Author: James Bourey served local government for 37 years, including as a city and county manager and regional council executive director. He also worked as a consultant to local government for another six years. He is the author of numerous professional articles as well as the book, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager.

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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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