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A Leadership of Public Service

Joe Sarcone

The Choice
In a world where human
suffering is inherent and indiscriminate each of us has a choice: we can work to
alleviate human suffering, we can ignore it, or we can contribute to it. During
the civil war in Mozambique we heard stories in the refugee camps of atrocities
being committed by the Mozambican National Resistance, RENAMO. Mothers were
forced to kill their infants or see the rest of their children murdered. In the
same moment Mozambican refugees were making their way across the border to
desperately impoverished areas of Malawi only to be received and cared for by
Malawians who had little themselves. These actions offer an extreme contrast
but illustrate the point. Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said it most eloquently, “Every man must decide whether
he will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive
selfishness. This is the judgment. Life’s most persistent and urgent question
is, what are you doing for others?”

The Work
The choice to take the path of “creative altruism” can take many
forms and for some it is public service. In the best case the special task to
which we choose to devote ourselves aligns with the mission of the organization
for which we work. We can devote
ourselves “to protect human health and to safeguard the natural environment” by
working for the Environmental Protection Agency or “to improve the health,
safety and well-being of America” by working for the Department of Health and
Human Services. The work of public service allows us “to rise above the narrow
confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all
humanity,” as Dr. King encouraged all people to do.

The Learning
Learning how to serve is at times wrought with missteps that can
be embarrassing, even painful, experiences. In Africa I worked with refugees to
begin a latrine construction campaign in two camps. Latrines were an accepted practice of the refugees in their
home villages so the focus for the camps was on digging holes and procuring
materials for the latrine structures. In a meeting with the sanitation workers
I stated we would have to dig holes and everyone strongly agreed. I then said
that in order to dig the holes we would need shovels to which there was no
response. I ignored the lack of a response thinking that of course we needed
shovels to dig.

After procuring and delivering the shovels and other
materials to the camp I drove on to the next camp and returned in a week only
to find that no latrines had been constructed. I was uncertain of what had gone
wrong until one worker approached to gently inform me that they did not dig
with shovels. The people preferred the tools used in their farming practice to
dig, hoe blades lashed to an appropriate stick with bush twine. Locally made
hoe blades were bought and distributed at much less cost than the imported
shovels and latrines were built in no time. Alaska author Rev. Father Michael
Oleska has said that communication across cultures is approximate and imperfect
and when there is a miscommunication it is always the non-dominant culture that
suffers the consequence. This is just one of many important lessons to be learned
and in learning these lessons we are better able to serve the public.

In another instance wells were being dug in the
refugee camp in the rainy season. I told the workers that the muddy conditions
around the open holes filled with water were a safety hazard but took no
further action. When I returned to the camp after a week I found that a child
had drowned in one of the holes. Learning how to serve reminds us of our
humanity. Not just the valued qualities such as compassion, patience, and
forgiveness but also the frustration, indifference, and cynicism that reveal
our frailty and threaten to alienate us from our mission.

learning how to serve we also face challenges and change within our
organizations. At times leaders can enter public service to dedicate themselves
to a mission only to find the mission lacks political support or funding. In
this instance mission becomes a victim of uncertainty. In an atmosphere of lack of recognition
and compensation for mission leaders can manifest behaviors ranging from malaise
to unleashed frustration. The public is not served.

do leaders transcend ambivalence and alienation when faced with conditions that
threaten mission? Psychiatrist and
writer Victor E. Frankel offers insight in relating that “success, like
happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the
unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than
oneself or as a by product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”
Author Frank Waters in The Man Who Killed
the Deer
, offers further guidance.
He writes, “It is a deep truth and difficult to learn that the greatest
deeds must be done by him who is content to remain unknown lest his actions be
impeded by too ready acclaim.” And poet Paolo Lugari adds that, “Yes it is
impossible, therefore it will take a little longer.”

The Commitment
act to acknowledge and embrace learning and to continue in public service is
commitment. It is in this more grounded place of commitment that public service
truly becomes the work of service.
Public service as the work of service allows that each leader in each moment
has the potential to accomplish mission in a consistent and meaningful way not
subject to variables such as budget or political will. In this place leaders
can choose to translate the work of public service to the work of service by
extending trust, demonstrating deference, exercising flexibility, and offering
patience to those they serve.

is the starting point in working with others to build capability. Deference
forms the foundation of successful diplomacy between governments and people. Flexibility
opens the door to respecting the ways of others. Patience acknowledges the
concept of time is relative to a group’s cultural existence. These
characteristics are not inherent to most organizations. But it is in the
accumulation of these actions that organizations emerge at a place of higher

this context it is not an organization’s policies, or political or religious ideology that define
service. Instead, there is simply individual choice by leaders to manifest
public service as the work of service to others, and, in so doing, to redefine
public service.

“You have to have your heart glad when
you are serving the people.” Inupiaq Elder Mary Ann Warden

Joe Sarcone has worked at the interface of
government with indigenous people on environmental public health programs over
the course of more than 20 years.
He currently works with tribes in Alaska on behalf of the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency. Email: [email protected]

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