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Cultivating Leadership in the Public Sector

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

By Deborah T. Johnson
March 29, 2020

Cultivating leadership within the work culture is a top priority for public servants. Excellent leaders provide continued support and nurture individuals into becoming better than their yesterday.

Great leaders are born with certain traits, morals and values which bypass the average human being. To be a great leader, one must understand flexibility and be compassionate, innovative, efficient, empowering, a great communicator and more importantly, an excellent listener. Honesty, integrity, inspiring others, commitment, passion, excellent decisionmaking capabilities, accountability, delegation and creativity are some amazing qualities that truly define a leader as well as cultivate leadership. Being in the public sector does not cancel out being a leader. Serving in the public sector is where strong leaders are needed the most. With regard to politics today, operating in full transparency is top priority for citizens to earn your trust. But cultivating leadership among the work culture is also a top priority for public servants.

Leadership is the action of leading a group of people and or an organization. The term leader is quite interesting, as it is often compared to the term manager, yet both roles are very different. In some roles within the public sector, I have heard my colleagues describe a leader as being more respected and a manager as just holding a title. Some of the harshest managers have been known to rule with an iron fist so-to-speak, veers away from policy and have issues with communicating and flexibility. Generally, the polar opposite is true of a great leader. Not often do you hear employees refer to their managers as leaders and their leaders as managers. As we take a closer look, many different leadership styles exist depending on the organization and its mission, end goal, training, and managers/leaders that each organization has in place.

 As we explore a few different types of leadership styles, think of the type of style which either pertains to you (perhaps it is a mix), or a goal that you would like to reach. Servant leadership is just that; being a leader who serves their people/organization or agency. With transactional leadership, it’s somewhat of a give and take. A leader will either reward or punish an employee based off of their day-to-day work routine. Generally, this system is said to keep employees motivated to work hard and go the extra mile. Transformational leadership is where management builds teams of employees to help pinpoint areas where change is needed. Lastly, with democratic leadership all parties of management have a say in standards and changes within the organization; somewhat of a collaborative effort.

Can leadership skills be improved? Or for some, can leadership skills be taught? Most definitely. Learning to follow, learning new things, being a discerning listener, being vulnerable, inspiring others, practicing discipline, developing situational awareness for both your employees as well as the management team and taking on additional job duties and tasks all show a positive effort in becoming a great leader. As previously stated, being a problem solver is a key element in cultivating leadership. It gives tell-tell signs to your thinking process, management patterns and skills. As stated by Colin Powell, “Leadership is solving problems; the day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.” Failure should never be an option however often times, it is. Traditionally, leadership can be learned and groomed over time.  Excellent leaders provide continued support and nurture individuals into becoming better than their yesterday.  Great leaders build strong cultures and work environments that are accepting of change and resilient during times of trouble within the organization. Honing in on regular habits and creating daily regimes consistent with a good work routine makes for an excellent leader. 

A leader should never be afraid to have a mentor. Mentors are an important aspect of cultivating leadership as every leader needs a strong support system and backbone.  Mentors provide pupils with a clear foundation that challenges them to go beyond the norms, deal with astronomical amounts of complexity, accept change and push for success. Having access to the appropriate resources, making the right connections through networking and open introductions, and asking the right questions are all very valuable tools. I tell my seven-year-old son, “Questioning anything is the simplest and most powerful mechanism that links prior knowledge to new knowledge. Ask questions!”  

In closing, cultivating leadership starts with everyone in a role of management. Consider that you, as a leader, can make an immeasurable difference in your employee’s career and a grave impact on your organization.  Are you satisfied being a manager or a leader? Cultivating leadership within your work environment will make you an invaluable asset to your organization.


Author: Deborah T. Johnson, MPA

Administrative Professional with the City of Houston/Houston Public Works
Executive Master Public Administration/Public Policy, Texas Southern University, Houston, Texas
Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences, Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas
Associate of Applied Arts and Sciences, Houston Community College, Houston, TX
Photo credit: Shane A. Hooks (my seven-year-old son)

[email protected]
www.linkendin.com/in/deborah-johnson-mpa-981823131

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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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