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The Power of One (or Two…or Three)

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

By Susan Paddock
October 9, 2015

Years ago (more than I care to count!) I was involved in a study of team teaching. At the end of several years of intense data collection, we discovered an interesting and at first puzzling fact: some teams were successful in one year and unsuccessful in another. What was happening?

After exploring a number of possible explanations, we concluded that a single teacher made the difference. When she was a part of a team, the team was successful. When she moved to a new team that team was successful.

paddockThis story illustrates the power of one person. That person does not need to be a leader in the formal, appointed sense. However, that person clearly does exhibit leadership qualities: an understanding of the environment and the process, a commitment to the needed change and an ability to convince others to join in the effort.

These are the characteristics that Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus, almost 30 years ago. They identified the ability to articulate a vision, focus others’ attention through that vision, communicate that vision and take actions that support the vision, along with a sense of self that encourages others.

Fans of the TV show “CSI” know that the series came about because of the dogged actions of two people: Anthony Zuicker, a UNLV graduate who was fascinated with forensic science, and Stavros Anthony, a police department lieutenant, who disregarded departmental protocol and allowed Zuicker to ride along with crime analysts for as long as he needed. The result was not only an award-winning television series, but also a change in the way that the world sees policing and crime analysis.

Bennis and Nanus saw leadership characteristics or strategies as being developed or displayed over time. But acts of heroism also show these traits, albeit in a much shorter period. The men who tackled a potential terrorist aboard a French train, and thus interrupted his plan, also had a vision (take him down) and the self-confidence and training to do that. The passengers aboard Flight 93 on September 11, 2001 also knew what they had to do and took action.

The difference between heroes and those who act heroically day-to-day is one of time. Heroes act quickly while “everyday heroes” spend time thinking about and planning their actions. In other ways, though, both types of heroes may be similar. Both have training or experience that allows them to act. Both engage in heroic acts without thinking of or concern for their long-term personal safety. They put concern for others above concern for their own long-term well-being. Whistleblowers are this kind of “organizational hero.” In the end, they often sacrifice their jobs, their friends, even their health, because they are committed to correcting errors or uncovering wrongdoing.

Maybe we can’t all be heroes in the popular media sense. However, we can be everyday heroes, reflecting the power of one. One person (or two or three) can be heroes in the workplace by combining both instant-action and long-term approaches—doing some planning and thinking but also being willing to take actions without concern for safety or, on occasion, security. For example, a day-to-day hero may come to the defense of a fellow employee; go “above and beyond” to ensure client safety; act in ways (as in the team teaching example) that allow others to succeed; bring an ethical or legal violation to the attention of leadership or stand with front-line employees seeking redress of grievances.

The risk may be great such as loss of credibility, position or employment. However, the reward or outcome may also be great. Therefore, it is important that the hero is willing to take a risk in order to support coworkers, clients or the organization.

A Jewish saying begins, “I am only one, but I AM one” and includes “If not me, who?” This might well be the mantra of those who seek to demonstrate the power of one in making change or improving public service. They truly are leaders, everyday heroes.


Author: Susan Paddock is a University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor who lives and works in Las Vegas, Nevada. She is the former director of certified public manager programs in Arizona and Wisconsin; has published in the areas of leadership, organizational development and human resources and is an active student and researcher on what works in current or emerging organizational settings. Email: [email protected]

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One Response to The Power of One (or Two…or Three)

  1. Pingback: The Power of One Redux | PA TIMES Online

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