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Is Your Leadership Style Ready for a Makeover?

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

By Robert Brescia

Brescia augustIf we can accept the notion that the relationship between governments, societies and public administrators is evolving, then couldn’t we also accept that leadership styles might also be changing? Don’t we have an urgent need to learn more about what it takes to be a great public administrator in the second decade of the 21st century?

Our social fabric in the United States, and that of many other countries, is changing at a rather fast rate. The public debate centers only on whether these changes are good for the country; that’s where ideologies live and flourish. Nevertheless, our modern-day, informal social contract between the government and the citizen still resembles that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1762. We still believe that the government has a basic responsibility toward the citizen to act in the public good. However, that can be defined. On the other hand, the larger the bureaucracy, the more power that it needs to wield firm and solid control over the populace – if that is its goal.

Power, bureaucracy, social contract, networked governments, global public administration – sounds somewhat Orwellian, doesn’t it? As with other social constructs, we can clarify what’s going on underneath the surface by identifying both universal and contextual properties of public leadership throughout the white water of social change. Let’s label the universalisms as “Big T” (True with a capital “T”) and contextual or situational things as “Small T” (true with a lowercase “t”).

Intent, motivation and predisposition (True).

All social action and leadership actions contain some type of leader’s intent, or basic reason to act. This comes from the roles that we occupy as public administrators and our responsibility to those that we serve. This has not changed. All public leaders act within the time-honored backdrop of ethical responsibility to those that they serve. Those are essential parts of the public machine. Try not to confuse this universalism with the transgressions that we see occurring from time to time. We will always have those because we are human and therefore fall short of the goal. Action contains intent. Intent is generated within the actor from his/her understanding of the societal reasons for his / her role as a steward of the public trust.

Technology insertion – its effect on global public leadership (true).

For my money, this is a contextual item because it just keeps on changing and we can find no discernable distinct relationship between the type or level of technology employed and the effectiveness of leadership within the administrator ranks. Sure, we must employ the latest means of communicating with each other and those that we serve; that does not change the intrinsic nature of our demonstrated leadership. However, it does open up new pathways of acting on a global scale with more ease and precision. It is up to each one of us to decide how fully to avail ourselves of these opportunities – that’s an individual and contextual decision.

Public governance, public institution and public values (true).

Governance can be understood as a process by which all societal institutions and individuals manage the whole—how they interact to propose and confirm common goals, values and activities. We can call this the canvas, or backdrop, on which our society operates and it is changing. Issues concerning legitimacy and resource allocation dominate the public conversation as the canvas evolves. Fear of the unknown is a factor that all administrators must confront and accommodate to get their jobs done.

Values are at the center of the ideological storm. Values can unite us or they can divide us. Strong nations historically have strong common values. As the social canvas changes, it is unclear if our values are eroding, disappearing, being replaced with new ones of equal import or remaining constant. While the role of the administrator may not have changed drastically because of the social canvas changes, the actions that the administrator takes resemble a complex adaptive system. Almost nothing happens exactly the same way twice and there are fewer and fewer dependent variables in the system. You can help by being more aware of the unintended consequences of your actions. Expect the unexpected and remain agile and flexible – those are the watchwords of our times.

Political & Organizational Civility (True).

Civility is a lot more than just being nice. It’s a leader’s respect for the preeminence of facts in social dialog. Civil leaders of our times take the time to analyze, reflect and appreciate the positions of many stakeholders in the public arena. They attack ideas, not people. This kind of leadership style will win friends and influence people all over the world. Have we lost the art of civil debate in our society? If your answer is yes, then begin to practice civil leadership and you will see how infectious it can be. Civility is the great enabler of leadership in the public sector.

Leading by example (True).

At the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute, we employ the following definition of leadership: the demonstrated ability to set direction, mobilize commitment, and build capabilities toward a shared goal.

There are some keywords within this definition – one is demonstrated. The leader must show the ability to lead through visible action. There is no substitute for that. No one cares what you say; it’s what you do that counts. Another important word is mobilize. Public leaders must be able to people excited about the value that they bring to the table. The last word of note is shared. Any leadership relationship that does not involve a shared goal is an unethical relationship; one in which power and domination are the central elements. Our definition accentuates leading by example – an eternal and universal component of leadership.

Would you like to improve your leadership and potential to serve on a more global stage? Then become more of a 21st century “stage-setter” and less of a 20th century controller. Assume the role of producing rather than directing. Assemble the actors, set the stage, provide the resources, define the inter-relationships and communications lash-ups, then watch the progress and innovation take place with your vision and coaching. In other words, set the context and set the communication mechanisms – that’s the job of today’s leader and administrator.


Author: Bob Brescia serves as the executive director of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute in Odessa, TX. He has a doctoral degree with distinction in executive leadership from The George Washington University. His experience includes top leadership team roles in education, business, government and defense sectors. Bob’s passion is to teach young Texans about leadership, ethics and public service. Please contact him at [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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