Why the Cult of Personality is the Wrong Leadership Model for Government

To sustain excellence over time, governments need to build leadership at all levels of their organizations.
by | April 29, 2014

While leadership can be the catalyst for responsive and innovative action in government, we too often revert to an outdated and ineffective view of leadership based upon a "cult of personality" and constructed around a charismatic leader. In the public sector, where there is often a diffused power structure, relying on a single person -- whether a governor, mayor or city manager -- can create the temporary illusion of progress. Yet most of the challenges and opportunities we face require consistent progress over long periods.

The true measure of leadership is whether an organization can sustain excellence over time regardless of economic or political cycles, and real excellence should not be unique to a single individual. But what do we know about leaders who have the ability to build, nurture and sustain organizational excellence? We know that they develop a model of shared leadership and that they focus on the three "Ps" of purpose, patience and persistence.

This approach fosters a model that develops "leadership at all levels," as described by the Commonwealth Centers for High Performance Organizations. A number of communities -- among them Catawba County, N.C.; Decatur, Ga.; Fort Collins, Colo.; Virginia Beach, Va.; and Washoe County, Nev. -- have consistently been recognized as having great local-government organizations because they understand the value of fostering leadership at every level.

The fundamental characteristics required to build such a culture are well known if not universally practiced. They include focus and clarity of mission, anchoring around a set of organizational values, fostering accountability, and constantly challenging the organization to be better through a relentless emphasis on performance. Selecting the right people to fit the culture is critical, as is investing in and developing them, recognizing strong performers and high-performing teams, and resisting the constraints of titles, job descriptions and organizational charts. Such an organization reinforces the importance, the satisfaction -- and, indeed, the fun -- of public-service work.

Beyond those principles, how do we elevate leadership as an essential part of who public employees are and what they do? To address this question, the International City/County Management Association's current president, Simon Farbrother, who is city manager of Edmonton, Alberta, challenged a task force of ICMA members to consider the future role of leadership within the local-government-management profession and to articulate the skills required to meet the challenges presented by today's rapidly changing communities.

The task force developed a lengthy list of characteristics that the new breed of local-government leaders must possess, some of which represent a significant departure from the administrative skills previously valued by technical managers. Many involved the development of a high emotional-IQ and other "soft" skills, such as a willingness to lead -- to facilitate and engage -- without maintaining control over all of an organization's moving parts, as well as the ability to inspire and motivate constituents and to exhibit visionary and aspirational thinking.

The task force also described ways that these new kinds of leadership skills can benefit our communities, such as increased trust in government and improved perceptions of wellbeing, satisfaction and quality of life among community stakeholders. More-engaged constituents and more dynamic partnerships can lead to increased collaboration, less apathy and greater civility. In the end, our communities can be more vibrant, sustainable and inclusive, the task force concluded.

Strong political and policy leadership can create a truly inspiring blueprint for a community's future. So can the efficient execution of that blueprint by experienced management leadership professionals. Building a stronger government workforce today requires more than blind devotion to the vision of a single, idealized individual.

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