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Leadership Challenges in 2016

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

By A. Hannibal Leach
January 19, 2016

The year 2016 ushers in a host of new opportunities and challenges to those within the public sector. After decades of public service reform efforts and painstakingly implementing thoughtful government performance-enhancement programs, the public sector is uniquely situated to turn the corner toward a more innovative posture. The public sector has also benefited from determined efforts to recruit and retain top talent from around the country.

The decision of the Federal Reserve to increase the federal interest rate late last year reflects a stronger national economy. But it also shows the triumphant results of determined public service employees to put the country on a better economic and fiscal trajectory. Throughout the past decade, most public agencies and organizations slashed budgets, cut personnel and were forced to do more with less. Having withstood these storms, the public sector now seems poised to lead in a more dynamic fashion.

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However, success sometimes brings new challenges. Steady recruitment within the last few years has put many public sector members in a position unrecognized in perhaps quite some time. As opposed to not having enough quality leaders, there is now a plethora of talented and accomplished leaders throughout the bureaucracy, at both the state and federal levels. As the popular aphorism goes, there are too many leaders and not enough followers.

The challenge I see this year for individuals within the public sector is how to be an effective leader in a high-powered organization with so many proven leaders at hand. Suggestions for dealing with this challenge are abundant in business books, how-to-guides, etc. From my own personal experience in both consulting and working within the public sector, I find two paths of dealing with this issue to be especially fruitful.

Awareness v. Paranoia

A balanced approach to the workplace is both healthy and smart. If power politics exist within the organization, having a full understanding of the different official (and unofficial) power distributions helps one take advantage of opportunities and avoid interpersonal conflicts. Paranoia puts one in a compromised position from the beginning. Instead of exhibiting the confidence and flexibility assignments in the public sector often call for, paranoia causes one to second-guess actions and severely limits a person’s overall effectiveness.

It is difficult to focus on tasks when all one thinks about are the countless numbers of imagined people striving to outdo you. A better approach would be to find areas of commonality with other leaders. Finding more ways to work together not only improves your own strong suits, but it also helps you to develop a better appreciation for others’ professional strengths.

Perform for Results, Not Praise

While working with an organization in the Washington, D.C., area several years ago, I noticed the staff focused a significant amount of time on seeking to impress higher-level personnel. Inevitably, of course, these talented individuals would often fall short of meeting the objectives set forth for them because they put the well-being of the organization in a position secondary to that of their own personal ambitions. Although praise brings a warm feeling to all of us, at the end of the day, goals must be met and objectives must be accomplished in order for the organization to fulfill its mission.

Healthy competition can be quite useful at times, but it must not stand in the way of high performance levels. Set up clear objectives and work dutifully to accomplish them. Developing a passion for your goals and objectives and understanding the importance they may have on society will also cause you to focus on the task at hand, rather than office politics. When the organization is functioning at a high-level, there is usually enough praise to go around for everyone.


One should embrace the often-rare opportunity to work alongside remarkable talent. The workplace is usually not a race, but a marathon. Use this opportunity to learn from other leaders and strengthen the weaknesses in your own personal toolkit.

Keep in mind your reputation is built not only from your list of accomplishments but also from the way in which you handle challenges, carry yourself personally and how well you work with others. A high-powered team is a blessing, not a curse, for talented and ambitious individuals. The success of the organization raises the profile of everyone involved in the process.

Author: A. Hannibal Leach, MPA, was previously employed as a congressional aide in the office of former Congressman Bart Gordon. He is the current president of the Center for Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy, a think tank that provides management consulting services. His scholarly research focuses on American politics, political institutions, as well as Congress and its relationship to the conduct and formation of U.S. foreign policy. You can reach Mr. Leach at [email protected].

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