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How Do We Train for High-Impact Public Leadership?—Part One

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

By Bill Brantley
June 6, 2022

In late 2017, I was handed the assignment to reinvent a supervisor certification program. I had turned down the task twice because I wanted to focus on building a team leader program. However, when you are voluntold, you take on the assignment. The supervisor certification program was eight sessions of eight hours of PowerPoint lecture on the basics of being a first-time manager. I sat in on the first cohort in 2018 because I wanted to experience what the students went through.

The content wasn’t bad, even though the instruction was heavy on theory and light on practical application. A few experiential activities primarily consisted of group discussions and two short role-plays. But, mostly, it was passive learning. I started the redesign of the program so it would be ready for the second cohort while I was in the first cohort.

Leader Filtration Theory

While I was at the Office of Personnel Management, I attended a presentation by Gautam Mukunda as he discussed his 2012 book, Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter. I was impressed by his research that explained how the external environment, internal organizational dynamics and leader selection systems worked together to limit a leader’s impact. Dr. Mukunda explained that as leaders ascended in an organization, the leaders varied little from other leaders at the same level. Organizations weeded out the mavericks, eccentrics and those who don’t fit the typical leadership mold. Dr. Mukunda called this process the leadership filtration system.

The purpose of the leadership filtration system is to make sure that the organization runs efficiently and effectively—in the current environment. Organizations spend much time and resources optimizing processes while reducing risk and variation. The quest for efficiency and effectiveness makes much sense when producing a high-quality product or service at the lowest cost. If the organization is a fast-food restaurant or an automotive assembly line, you want a leadership development program that produces essentially interchangeable leaders.

I remember being a Presidential Management Fellow at the Social Security Administration. My mentor told me that if I stayed at the Social Security Administration, my number one duty was to ensure that “the checks went out on time.” “Don’t mess with the checks,” he said. So, as you can imagine, the Social Security Administration’s training program for Presidential Management Fellows produced leaders that were like each other.

The leaders who stayed out of the leadership filtration system became either great leaders or massively destructive leaders. For example, in his early political career, Abraham Lincoln was often weeded out in favor of other, more conventional leaders. Mr. Lincoln became president by fluke in a chaotic time. Many of Lincoln’s contemporaries predicted that Lincoln wouldn’t succeed as president, especially during wartime. However, the mixture of Lincoln’s strengths and weaknesses made him a great American president.

Leadership Development and Organizational Outcomes

As I continued to build leadership development programs, I kept the leadership filtration system theory in mind. I was also greatly influenced by a 2014 article (“Leadership theory and research in the new millennium: Current theoretical trends and changing perspectives”) in The Leadership Quarterly. Dinh, Lord, Gardner, Meuser, Liden and Hu wrote that “[a]s a field, we have amassed an extensive body of research and theory that has solidified the importance of leadership in organizational science. However, we also know much more about the outcomes of leadership than the processes that affect the emergence of these outcomes” (p. 55).

Dinh et al. explain that leaders are embedded in complex, evolving organizational systems that “challenge the stability and certainty typically found within the dominant leader-centric, global, trait-oriented thematic category that have defined the field” (p. 55). The authors argue that linking “processes to outcomes can advance theory, and it will also provide a firmer basis for leadership interventions” (p. 55).

As I reinvented the Supervisor Certification Program, I gave the trainees an appreciation of the complex, adaptive systems they would soon manage. I included experiential activities such as case studies and role-plays to help supervisors master critical thinking skills, emotional intelligence and team-building capabilities. That meant cutting down the number of PowerPoint presentations and having the participants interact with each other as they learned how to manage the many wicked problems of government agency leadership.

State of Federal Career Senior Leadership (2017)

A Deloitte study sponsored by the Senior Executive Association flatly states that “[a]gencies are not prepared for the future of work and even the most senior career leaders believe significant innovation and collaboration are discouraged by institutional or cultural barriers.” In the five years since the study, agencies are still not prepared for the future of work and may have fallen farther behind due to the 2020 Pandemic. A radical approach to government leadership development is needed, which I will cover in next month’s column.


Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville and the University of Maryland. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Navy’s Inspector General Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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