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POSDCORB, Meet Leadership

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

By Patrick S. Malone
August 5, 2022

POSDCORB. The very mention titillates conversation among anyone in the public administration universe, especially those with formal education in the field of public administration. The simple eight-letter pattern is one of the most heavily cited in the history of the field. Clean, clear and easy to memorize. A mnemonic for the ages.

The history is well-known. Originally conceived in 1935, it wasn’t until 1937 that POSDCORB found its way into print. While a member of the President’s Committee on Administrative Management, (better known as the Brownlow Committee) Luther Gulick penned the answer to the questions: “What is the work of the chief executive?” and “What does he do?” in his piece “Notes on the Theory of Organization.” Drawing heavily from Henri Fayol and French public administration theory from the mid-1800s, Gulick suggested that the basic functions of management could be summarized through seven fundamental activities. These represented the functional elements of a senior executive’s role: Planning, organizing, staffing, directing, coordinating, reporting, budgeting.

Far be it from this humble soul to challenge the tenets that governed public management from 1937 to the present time. Many a city manager, county clerk or state analyst has benefitted from this practical framework for years. POSDCORB made sense and it’s easy to apply. It provided a solid, concrete structure for managers at all levels. It also gave public administration professors a classic exam question that haunts public administration students at campuses across the country.

Not that POSDCORB is without criticism—nothing is. And among the banes of human existence is our tendency to judge previous work through a post-pandemic 2022 lens. But let’s do it anyway. Among the most common critique of POSDCORB is rigidity. A comprehensive list will, by definition, always leave something out. Over the years, Gulick made great efforts to explain the detail underlying the individual elements of POSDCORB. Still, psychologists, social workers and other scholars found ways to critique the inflexibility of the seven words. We also need to acknowledge that much of the thinking behind POSDCORB was grounded in the experiences and leisure of well-educated white males. To this day many public administration textbooks scantly mention the impact of Jane Addams, Mary Parker Follett, Ida Wells or Octavia Hill. These women are not always given the credit they deserve in shaping the thinking in our field. One wonders what POSDCORB might have looked like with their involvement.

Once again, we shall not denigrate this model in any way. It will outlive all of us and it should. It’s classic PA. But what if we tried to apply POSDCORB today? While it’s value in management is hard to deny, it is difficult to apply POSDCORB in a way that makes us more effective public service leaders, not just managers. Perhaps we should apply POSDCORB to a multicultural, diverse, pandemic-influenced, divisive world where the leadership challenges are extraordinary? In other words, what if we looked at POSDCORB through a different lens? Allowing for the benefits from the functional management perspective, but growing it to address issues of the complexity of leading the public and nonprofit organizations of today?

Where leadership is concerned, there’s clearly a new application out there for the POSDCORB framework. After all, leaders provide the vision, harness the resources and nurture the environments where managers thrive. So maybe it’s time to take a run at giving leaders the gift of POSDCORB, the information-age, post-COVID version designed to foster inclusive workplaces, with multiple generations making up the workforce and hybrid work environments emerging daily. 

Consider the following:

P – Patience: A crucial attribute for leaders in examining organizational climates and engaging with those they lead.

O – Optimism: Unbridled optimism can drive agency success when times are gloomy. A leader can use optimism to fuel excitement and commitment for all.

S – Sensitivity: Cultural, personal, individual and all the above. Sensitivity is a crucial emotional intelligence component.

D – Diversity: No question here. Diversity of people, thought and ideas make organizations better.

Co – Commitment: The applied version of optimism. Leaders who are committed demonstrate fierce resolve in their passion to succeed.

R – Relationships: Can’t lead without them.

B – Belonging: Creating a sense of belonging based on authenticity and a sense of welcoming takes the benefits of diversity to the next level.

Could there be other applications of these acronyms? Of course. But maybe these are a good start. Let’s take POSDCORB to a new world, the challenging world of leading. Our organizations will be better for it.

Author:  Patrick S. Malone is the Director, Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University.  He is a frequent guest lecturer and author on leadership and organizational dynamics in the public service.  His co-authored book, “Leading with Love and Laughter – A Practical Guide to Letting Go and Getting Real” (Berrett-Koehler Publishing) was released in Spring 2021. [email protected]  Twitter:  @DrPatrickMalone

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