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Leadership Will Never Be Easy

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

By Sarah Sweeney
January 27, 2023

About six months ago I was promoted to a position where I no longer directly supervised line staff—something that has become further outside my comfort zone—and I’ve been working at identifying my new leadership style. Focusing on honing some of the skills I was developing as a supervisor over the past two years, I’ve discovered that it does not get any easier the higher you climb, but rather more complex—however, at times, also more satisfying. It comes with many sleepless nights spent worrying about staff safety and job performance, who will show up versus call out sick and the general welfare of the clientele you serve. Despite the vast contrast I’ve experienced in this position, over these past months there have been some lessons learned in how leadership will never be easy, no matter the passion and endurance I feel I have.

This past November I received an email out of the blue that one of my staff had requested me personally to become their mentor in a six month mentorship program and I couldn’t have been more surprised or honored to say yes! You never truly know the impression you leave on those you work with and it often presents itself when you least expect it. As a manager or leader we have the unique opportunity to guide our staff on their own self-discovery and skill building journeys, even so far as ensuring we begin succession planning from day one. Public Administration is a vast field of practice which supports a diverse populous that endeavors to change the world through policy, action and legislation. Social change comes through social action and mentorship is key in this movement, to support and guide budding professionals or further develop those who yearn for something more. I encourage all of my staff to participate in training opportunities that speak to their areas of interest or specialization and I would encourage you all to do the same.

One of the hot button topics we all struggle with, is making time to take care of ourselves. Harvard Business Review has an article about the importance of taking care of ourselves as leaders, which can be difficult to manage when we are worried about those on our teams. As a public administrator and manger I am often running the daily operations of my office and forget to take the time to break away from my desk, computer or even the office and usually arrive home exhausted after a long day.  It my duty to ensure my staff are taking breaks and vacations and offering reminders each Friday to do some self-care to refill their cups—and it has become quite easy as of late to forget to follow my own advice. Being a leader means leading by example and focusing on the hard task of caring for ourselves as well.

I would have to admit a second topic that can be difficult to manage would be discipline of staff; as a mentor once told me, we do not enter this business to fire people but to bring them up and develop them, so it can be incredibly difficult, and sometimes awkward, to head this direction. In an article by Forbes magazine they suggest some things to keep in mind when heading down the path toward discipline, which I have tried on my own journey and have found some success with. A big key to supervision is meeting with your staff regularly and keeping a supervisory file that includes notes on your discussions and any concerns or areas of development and formulating your feedback in a constructive way to support and guide your staff. If the path of discipline leads toward letting staff go, it is important to keep firm and clear with your intentions. We should strive to remain transparent, communicative and supportive throughout the process simply because it’s not easy for anyone involved.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that leadership is not about the fame, the glory or the money no matter how much I sometimes wish it were. Being a leader brings with it vulnerability, stress, pride, joy and so many other emotions it’s amazing. Building a legacy for yourself is vital for the continuation of our field of practice and it is our responsibility to pass that on to the next generation of public administrators. If you are just starting your journey, nearing the end of the road or somewhere in between, I hope that you recognize opportunities to challenge yourself and those you work with. Keep in mind the value of self-care, operating your business the way you’d like to experience it as a customer and giving your time to make some real change in the world.

Author: Sarah Sweeney is a professional social worker and public administrator in Washington State.  She may be contacted at [email protected]

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