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Cultivating Leadership: Freedom and Responsibility

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

By Candi Choi
January 18, 2019

“Far best is he who knows all things himself;
Good, he that hearkens when men counsel right;
But he who neither knows, nor lays to heart
Another’s wisdom, is a useless wight”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

If organizations seek to cultivate leadership, they must first consider the virtue of employees. Some programs and policies have been implemented with the best intentions for cultivating leadership. They’ve aimed and fallen short of that goal, only missing some minute details of what is required for becoming a leader. Many times the programs and policies encourage employees to learn more about the organization, its management strategies or even the employee’s personality. This builds upon what would help any leader succeed at the organization. Yet these activities don’t cultivate leadership—  they merely cultivate the organization.

Of course, everyone wants to be agreed with, but there is something profound about changing minds through dialogue. Are organizations up for the challenge? Can the management and leadership of organizations take on criticisms from field level employees? Will they also trust that the employee is still a functional performer in the overall excellence of the organization? Many times when honest criticisms arise, certain programs or policies are instituted to allow a platform for information sharing through an arm of the organization, rather than through a decision or a decision maker. In a recent article published by Business Insider, Bharath Jayaraman, a top level HR Executive at Facebook and Amazon, says folks need “to have arguments, disagree, have difficult conversations” in a respectful way. He contends, ”agreeing with people and being cohesive is actually easy…disagreeing with people and still being cohesive is hard.” He advises folks to be capable of disagreeing without questioning intentions.

In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says, “the function of a good man to be the good and noble performance…any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate excellence.” Consider employees who’d utilize their free time soaking up field expertise, like innovations in physics or solving new mathematical problems, etc, rather than attending the next big thing in organizational management. Participation is required for organizations to evolve. But what will enhance the work employees do for the organization? Is it not the pursuit of whatever is worthy for keeping the employee? Or, by the same, is it worthy for an employee to pursue their interest at the organization? How will they be considered leaders amongst their peers? Do titles now equate to virtue? Employees can achieve excellence by different means; certainly an interest for both the employee and the organization to consider.

The narratives provided by employees and constituents can be game-changing. Validating those narratives are crucial to the culture of the organization. Administrators have to be impartial and reliable in navigating through the narratives. Aristotle considers facts to be of primary importance. He says, “we must take pains to state them definitely, since they have a great influence on what follows.” Quantifying narratives as x amount of constituents have said y doesn’t prove that x is actually true. To simply say that 20 students have complained about a teacher does not mean the teacher is not excellent. It simply says 20 students disagree with the teacher. Probing the differences is where leadership blossoms. Narratives are pertinent beyond surveys and test taking with major impacts on organizational culture. Administrators must be capable of probing and validating narratives through evidentiary supports. The easiest way to do this is to have understanding and a rational capacity for facts. It requires deliberate and honest communication while also solving problems more genuinely.

Employees are the experts of the organization. They hold significant knowledge in the subject for which they are involved and deal with every monotonous detail along the way. Leadership is cultivated by understanding such involvement. Leadership begins through sharing information freely through the appropriate channels. Ultimately, leadership begins by engaging one in their own capacity for leadership. A precedent is set based on trust and confidence in the overall administration of the organization. Seeing work as specialized expertise compels idea sharing and honest feedback when challenges and constraints need to be addressed. Otherwise, employees feel threatened and tend to guard against opposition. The honest flow of information, crucial to collaborative conversation, avoids costly political mistakes in the public arena.

There is a process to selecting and administering work that is worthy of pursuing. A noble man, as Aristotle would say, pursues worthy causes and interests by his function. Those who choose to excel in their work become assets to the organization. Example teaches mankind. Leadership is shown through conversations where disagreements occur and questions of intention are muted. There are times when folks must navigate narratives that undermine the good excellence of the organization. Instead of pander to them, respectfully probe details and stand by facts that lead to truths—that’s leadership cultivation.


Author: Candi Choi holds an MPA with specialization in local government management. She has experience with local budgeting, planning and constituent affairs. Contact her via email: [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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