Politics and the Discouraged Public Servant

The meaningless dialogue we're hearing in this campaign season can leave people in government feeling pretty low. There are some ways to try to get past the blues.
by , | October 10, 2012

Babak Armajani

Babak Armajani was a Governing contributor. He was the chair for the Public Strategies Group, where he and his partners focused on transforming bureaucracies into customer-focused enterprises.

Babak Armajani

Babak Armajani was a Governing contributor. He was the chair for the Public Strategies Group, where he and his partners focused on transforming bureaucracies into customer-focused enterprises.

If you are one of those who is out to make our world a better place through your work in government, you are no stranger to discouragement. It goes with the territory for most conscientious public servants.

I was watching campaign news the other night and expressing disgust to my wife about the complete dearth of meaningful political dialogue. Those who have devoted our careers to public service expect better from the campaign process. To say that the current campaign season is discouraging would be an understatement.

In an effort to lift my spirits, my wife suggested I devote a column to the topic of discouragement. We'll see if this therapy works.

The root word here, of course, is courage. My colleague Jeff Kober defines courage as "acting for a purpose in the face of fear." Note that courage is not the same as bravery, the latter being associated with fearlessness. The worthiness of our purpose and our commitment to that purpose is the source of our courage. Keep this in mind, as it will become critical in dealing with discouragement.

So, how do we re-muster our courage when it has been sapped from us?

Get a hand up. Just telling someone "I'm discouraged" is a useful first step. Go to someone outside of the government arena in which you work, since colleagues can potentially be discouraged themselves. Talking with someone stuck in the same quagmire as you will likely make it worse.

Colleagues may also fall into the trap of trying to advise you on a course of action. You don't need advice right now, just a sympathetic ear. The less your helper knows about the technical dimensions of your issue, the more he or she can concentrate on giving you the emotional support that will fuel the rebuilding of your courage.

Draw on your spiritual resources. Remember, the source of your courage is a passion for some purpose. New York University Professor Paul Light has made many valuable contributions to public-management literature. One of my favorites, "Sustaining Innovation: Creating Nonprofit and Government Organizations that Innovate Naturally," identifies four fundamental elements of innovative government and nonprofit organizations: trust, honesty, rigor and faith. At least two of these critical factors--trust and faith--are fundamentally affairs of the spirit. These are examples of spiritual resources that sustain leaders through the tough passages of innovation.

Let's look at faith, for example. This is not necessarily religious faith, though that may be one of your spiritual resources. Try this little test to apply the faith principle in something that you find discouraging: In what things-anything--do you have faith? What gives you that faith? How could you apply that quality to the issue that is discouraging to you?

Make an action plan. Nothing boosts courage like getting back on the horse. Doing so involves calling on faith's cousin: optimism. While faith is belief without proof, optimism represents hope based on some evidence or past experience. These things are the raw material for your action plan. Amid all of your discouragement, what are the little rays of hope upon which you could begin to build? What actions, no matter how small, could you take to move back toward your purpose?

And so, as a source of inspiration, I leave you with three quotations:

History has demonstrated that the most notable winners usually encountered heartbreaking obstacles before they triumphed. They won because they refused to become discouraged by their defeats. --B.C. Forbes

One of the things I learned the hard way was that it doesn't pay to get discouraged. Keeping busy and making optimism a way of life can restore your faith in yourself. --Lucille Ball

Develop success from failures. Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success." --Dale Carnegie

My wife was right. I feel better. And, I hope this is helpful to all of you out there who, by trying to change things for the better, regularly subject yourselves to being discouraged.


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