What Makes Good Government Leaders

We believe many of the comments that follow apply also in the UK and Ireland.  They are from Terry Newell who was a US Air Force Officer and Dean of Faculty of the government's Federal Executive Institute. His main focus is on ethics and values-based leadership in government.  Here are some of his thoughts on government leadership in the US.  

Q: What are some of the challenges facing federal leaders?

 A: The biggest challenge is to rebuild trust inside government organizations and among those the government serves.  Last year, surveys recorded the lowest percentage ever — they found that only 13 percent say government can be trusted to do what is right always or most of the time. Government employee data shows that trust is also a problem within agencies.  If we don't rebuild trust, it’s hard to get a lot else done.

Q: What else do federal leaders need to concentrate on?

 A: Another major challenge is to turn the creativity of government workers loose. A lot of them are stifled by cumbersome processes and rules.  We’re also not keeping younger workers.  They don’t feel like they can exercise their talents and their passions.  Government needs to view some mistakes as the inevitable result of creative risk-taking.  In too many federal organizations, mistakes are treated as failures to be punished. That just discourages people from being creative.

Q: How can leaders rebuild trust and create cultures that welcome creativity and innovation?

 A: As a leader, you have to be trustworthy.  You’ve got to be a person of integrity.  People trust leaders when those leaders exemplify the behavior they want their followers to exercise.

Second, leaders build trust by allowing people to take risks. When you extend trust to people, they’re willing to try things, and that trust gets repaid with excellence.  A large part of fostering creativity is establishing a work environment that rewards things like collaboration, experimentation and learning.  Part of it is also giving people knowledge and skills in their professional field and encouraging them to learn in different or related areas that don't appear to be job-related.  Creativity often comes at the intersection of disciplines, not just within them.

We also need to take off some of the shackles that we put on government workers.  There’s too much micromanagement.

Q: Are federal leaders sufficiently prepared for their jobs?

A: Some are prepared, but a lot aren’t.  One reason is that some end up in leadership roles because they’re technical experts and that is the only way to promote them.  There’s also no structured preparation across the federal government to enter leadership roles. Some agencies have it, but others don’t.

If you are put in a senior management or executive job, you are in a position of authority but you're not necessarily a leader.  You can give orders, but that doesn’t mean you will have willing, creative and committed followers.  Being a leader means not relying solely on your authority to solve problems, it means fostering commitment and excitement among those you lead.  If you think you’re a leader and look behind you and no one’s there, you may just be in a position of authority.

Q: What should the government be doing to prepare the next generation of leaders?

 A: We have to start much earlier in people’s careers.  You don't have to become a supervisor to start learning about leadership.  Some of this learning involves formal training, but most leadership learning comes in the workplace, handling job assignments.

One of the things we could do is build mentoring and coaching into those assignments in a way that helps people from the earliest parts of their careers understand how to gain followers and influence people.  It would also help if supervisors, managers and executives were graded in how well they do in nurturing the next generation of leaders.  We have to do a better job at selecting people for leadership roles.

 Q: You say in your latest book that America needs government leaders who are not only good managers but who are statesmen. What does that mean?

 A. Leadership skills are important, but they can be used for ill as well as good.  Calvin Coolidge said that "character is the only secure foundation of the state." Without character — which includes humility, moral courage, passion for public service and honor — leaders become poisonous to their organizations.  A key aspect of what I call statesmanship is character, which is often missing from leadership models.