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Finding Future Leaders in Federal Government Matters

imagesAs retirement and sequestration in the public workforce become common, we hear more concerns expressed about who our future public managers will be and where they will come from. In my opinion and those public managers that I surveyed recently on this subject, we should be doing more than budget cutting. We should be looking for leaders.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and others have projected a retirement rate over the next three to five years to cover 50 percent of the federal workforce and 42 percent of the state and local government workforces. Elimination of federal jobs due to sequestration in the next nine months is predicted to be 725,000 and in March, 2013, OPM received 10,183 new retirement claims, more than double the number expected. Strengthening the government workforce requires public managers at all levels of government to acknowledge that many of these future leaders are already in government and are just waiting to be noticed. It is time to do so!

The eight characteristics that are exhibited by these leaders and should be supported and developed by agencies, and often employees’ first tier supervisors, include integrity, competence, vision, commitment, affinity, duty and accountability. By integrity, I mean that the individual both trusts and is trusted. By competence, I mean that the person knows their stuff. Much as Steven Spielberg at not quite 30 years of age directed a movie in an abandoned trailer at Universal Studios in order to earn a contract with the studio after being rejected from the University of Southern California’s film school, so too these future leaders know their stuff well enough to get the job done right.

By vision, I mean that the person knows where they are going and why, and can tell anyone who wants to know in 25 words or less. In so doing, that person is able to test ideas and proposals time and time again. Visionary leaders are capable of articulating where a group is going in a way that resonates with others. They then set people free to innovate, experiment and take calculated risks within a defined structure so as to get there. Vision alone does not define a leader, rather it is one characteristic that along with the seven others define leadership.

By commitment, I mean total focus and dogged persistence to achieving specific outcomes within a defined timeframe. As an example, one director of a social service agency addressed the problems left by her predecessor when she was moved into the acting director position by meeting one-on-one with staff. She found out that her staff shared her vision for the overburdened agency and its mission. She got people talking about their hopes for the future and tapped into their compassion and dedication. She voiced their shared values whenever she could. She guided them to look at whether the way they did things furthered the mission and together they eliminated rules that made no sense. Meanwhile, she modeled the principles of the new organization she wanted to create: one that was transparent and honest and one that focused on rigor and results. She and her team tackled the changes. The agency’s work climate changed within the year from one of grudging compliance to one that reflected shared passion and commitment with a budget that doubled within a span of 18 months.

By affinity, I mean collaboration or the promotion of harmony and the fostering of mutually respectful relationships. Managing these relationships takes time and energy as well as leadership. Affinity requires persuasion, the bolstering of others’ abilities through feedback and guidance, the initiating and managing of change, the building and reinforcing of bonds between people and stakeholders as well as cooperation and team-building. Affinity is sometimes articulated by co-workers as someone who takes care of his people. As an example, a director of operations oversaw five managers, of which four held college degrees. The one who didn’t, became the director’s “go-to-man” because he could always be counted on to do the best possible job even though he earned less than the other four due to the agency’s bias toward degreed employees. The director eventually wound up pleading the go-to-man’s case to management and won for him both a raise and the go-to-man’s loyalty.

By duty, I mean personal and organizational realism about current conditions and responsibilities as well as what is possible should change actually begin. Duty is sometimes described as context – whether it be legal, social, emotional or political.

It amounts to an understanding of the rules that apply now and whether or not and when those rules can be changed. Sometimes leaders use a process of dynamic inquiry to discover the organization’s condition by asking people what they care about, what is helping them get the job done, what is helping the organization to succeed and what is getting in the way. Usually, these focused conversations and open-ended questions help determine what is right and what is not right so that collective concerns can be successfully addressed.

By accountability, I mean being willing to accept responsibility for one’s own conduct. In its most narrow interpretation, accountability involves answering to a higher authority in the bureaucratic or inter-organizational chain of command. This formal definition draws a very clear distinction between two fundamental questions: to whom is the organization accountable and for what activities and performance standards am I personally responsible? Accountability is often used interchangeably with ethics because both concepts involve the means by which an organization or an individual chooses a course of action and subsequently defends it. Leaders are described as individuals who know what the legal or regulatory standards are, what the informal or implicit standards are, who the opinion leaders are, what the experience of comparable organizations facing similar decisions has been and what strategies or tactics are available to help ensure prudent action in a changing environment. Many times, a visible demonstration of accountability is a necessary part of the process. Such a demonstration was provided by Peter Ueberroth when he agreed to run the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and promised to make $15 million in profit. He then personally negotiated sponsorship contracts worth millions and during the actual games wore the uniform of a different Olympic worker each day. The profit at the conclusion of the games was determined to be $215 million.

When looking for leaders to be future public managers, we should focus on and build upon these eight core competencies. We should encourage and support self-directed learning so as to set goals that are specific to the individual and that focus on improvements that they are passionate about, building on their strengths while filling in where there are gaps of experience, skill or knowledge. Leadership training must be a strategic priority that is supported at the highest level. Commitment to this must come from the top. That’s because new leadership means a new mindset and new behaviors. In order for these to resonate, the organization’s culture, systems and processes all will probably need to change. It all starts with recognizing that there are stars among us.


Author: Christine Gibbs Springer is the Director of the Executive Masters Degree in Emergency and Crisis Management at UNLV, the only program of its kind in the United States. She has served on Congressional Panels developing performance metrics for DHS/FEMA grants, a FEMA panel to develop core competencies for college curriculum and degree programs, and on the Congressional Panel evaluating FEMA post-Katrina last year. She also serves on the Nevada Citizen Corps Board of Directors and the National Academy of Public Administration’s Board of Directors. She is also a member of InfraGard. She is founder and CEO of a strategic management and communications firm, Red Tape Limited, incorporated in 1986 with offices in Nevada and Arizona. To contact Springer, email [email protected]


Image courtesy of http://wymi.wordpress.com.

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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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