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Leading with the Lights On

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

By Olivia Cook
March 25, 2019

In John Kotter’s, “Management is (Still) not Leadership,” he writes that leadership is about creating a vision, getting people to buy into the vision, empowering people to believe in that vision and using it to produce useful change. These sentiments are relevant and help produce a great definition of what leadership consists of. However, it is important to add that leadership is also about positively motivating followers in a way that encourages them to be vulnerable with not just the “successful parts,” but also with “embracing the suck.” As Linda Hill expressed in her TED Talk, “Leadership is about setting the stage, not being the stage.” In other words, leadership may start with the leader, but it does not end there.

This is important to discuss, as motivation from a leader is invaluable and consistently needed when trying to inspire others to buy into the mission and vision of the organization. Therefore, when leaders are being vulnerable with themselves, it encourages those around them to be their unapologetic selves. We can argue that the core of great leadership stems from how one treats the other people that are following him or her. If a leader treats her followers unethically, it discourages the followers and hinders the leader’s effort in creating a positive impact. As a result, the leader can potentially experience paralysis in growth due to her inability to display those fundamental values (i.e. trust, loyalty, honesty, integrity, etc.) that lay the foundation for steering any type of ship (i.e. relationships, followership, friendships, etc.).

In the public, private and nonprofit sectors this aspect of leadership is important when building an organizational culture and establishing a brand. As public administrators, we must challenge ourselves to be the change we want to see in others. If we are seeking change in our communities, organization, environment, colleagues and even ourselves, it first starts with us—or better yet, with trust. This is especially important when dealing with marginalized communities. It is our duty to be the thought leaders that offer unconditional support to those historically left behind.

Trust can increase our cultural competence in providing better public service. This motivational characteristic has lasting impacts on organizational culture as well as on stakeholders. In the public and nonprofit sectors, stakeholders play a pivotal role in our being, as they too can be affected by an organization’s actions, objectives, policies and leadership. Therefore, embracing this motivational component is important because it reassures our stakeholders of the commitment we made to our organization. It shows them that we have passion in our team and organization, all while being change agents within our environment.

However, to initiate better practices, we must start now. We should be intentional about everything we say, the things we do and what we allow our influences to be. As public administrators, we are often in the light, which means that what we allow to influence ourselves may also impact those we seek to serve. It is important for us to work on filling these gaps in our leadership skills by embracing our vulnerabilities and motivating others with positive values. And, if we fail at it, so what? Failure is a vital component that keeps us on the journey to success and provides us with opportunities to learn.

Our goal should be to lead in the way we would have wanted to be led—creating mountains of trust, oceans of vulnerability and deep waves of empathy. Living this mantra of leadership reminds our followers that we care and that they are of value to not only the organization but to our world as people. As public service administrators, it is our charge to motivate our followers consistently, effectively, compassionately, transparently and wholeheartedly in a way that ignites the courage in us to be our truest selves—that is, leading with the lights on.


Author: Olivia Cook, MPA, PhD Student, Auburn University, email: [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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