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The Organization’s Chief Credibility Officer: Thinking well, Talking Well and Ethical Leadership

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

By Richard M. Jacobs
December 2, 2020 

Although ASPA’s Code of Ethics doesn’t directly address administrative communication, successful public administrators—similar to their private sector counterparts—understand the critical importance of thinking well and how that’s communicated by talking well.

In Talk Is Chief: Leadership, Communication & Credibility in a High-Stakes World, this form of administrative communication—Jack Modzelewski calls it, “Smart talk,”—provides administrators a distinct advantage: By commanding attention, “Smart talk,” attracts inquiring minds and listening ears by saying less and conveying more.

Having thought through their message, “Smart talking,” administrators begin with attention-grabbing and compelling words—not “Ummm’s,” “Ahhhh’s,” or “It’s sort of like’s.” They’re concise, not glib; neither polished orators nor scripted robots. This, “Smart talk,” reveals a genuine person, one who’s passionate about the subject and its significance for the organization’s future.

“Smart talk”—a learned behavior that forges a purpose-driven culture

“Smart talk,” is learned, consisting of five skills:

  • Being genuine: Don’t imitate others.
  • Projecting confidence, humility, and transparency: Even when scripted, speak authentically and conversationally about the subject (both the good and bad), what is and isn’t working, as well as what’s coming next.
  • Reiterating the why: Continuously recall the organization’s purpose, mission, and strategy in a way people can visualize.
  • Reiterating the what: Repeat goals and important procedural points to ensure the widest possible audience gets it.
  • Telling stories: Paint a verbal portrait of the destination, inspiring and replete with examples connecting with people across all levels of the organization, relating to their daily service to it, and building a cohesive team.

Strengthening these skills, Modzelewski argues, “Smart talk” inspires others to enact a shared purpose by drawing their attention to five imperatives:

  • Respecting every member of the organization;
  • Sharing the organization’s purpose;
  • Improving delivery of the organization’s good or services;
  • Being entrepreneurial, not complacent; and,
  • Collaborating as a team.

This kind of, “Smart talk,” begets a purpose-driven culture—why we do what we do—as the organization’s values connect with people and provide authoritative guidance to solve problems and make decisions.

Public administrators as Chief Credibility Officers

“Smart talk,” is all about building credibility—a judgment based upon an administrator’s words and actions. Embodying these imperatives, administrators increase their wealth of credibility and trustworthiness. Especially when it’s necessary to persuade others as to why change is in everyone’s best interest and should commit to it, trust—the leadership capital generated through credibility—underwrites a successful, virtuous organization change effort.

Through one’s daily communications, formal and informal smart talk connects administrators with people across the organization in purposeful way. Modzelewski maintains that this strategic function of administration empowers people to, “Do right things,” as Peter Drucker noted.

Although ASPA’s Code of Ethics doesn’t directly address communication, it does imply that, “Smart talk,” is important. For public administrators, this requires honing five skills:

  • Using courteous and respectful language that upholds the highest standards (#1e);
  • Respecting and safeguarding protected and confidential information (#2d);
  • Informing and encouraging active engagement through open, honest, transparent, complete, clear and easy to understand communications (#3a,d);
  • Providing accurate, honest, comprehensive and timely information and advice—even if it’s not popular or what people want to hear—based upon a complete and impartial review of circumstances and needs of the public as well as the organization’s goals and objectives (#5a,b); and,
  • Encouraging open expression of views by members of the organization and providing administrative channels for dissent (#7c).

With “Smart talk,” constituting 50%-90% of an administrator’s day and mindful of Argyris and Schön’s discussion concerning, “Theories for action,” public administrators should continuously hone their, “Smart talk,” skills and content. The objective isn’t to come across as a sophisticated orator but to think one’s ideas through and, then, to state them clearly and concisely in a way that attracts attention to the subject. Reminding people of their organization’s purpose across all its levels, this, “Smart talk” also identifies what’s expected of everyone as well as how everyone will be assessed—including administrators.

In turn, “Smart talking,” public administrators demonstrate personal integrity, which increases their credibility and, in turn, inspires confidence and trust in others which underwrite a purpose-driven and ethical public service organization.


Author: Richard M. Jacobs is a Professor of Public Administration at Villanova University, Acquisitions Editor of Public Integrity, and Chair of the ASPA Section on Ethics and Integrity in Governance. His research interests include organization theory, leadership ethics, ethical competence, and teaching and learning in public administration. Jacobs may be contacted 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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