Public-sector leadership comes with a unique set of increasingly complex challenges. There is finite time. Resource constraints are real. The gap between public expectations and service capabilities is widening. There is politicking. Trust is sparse. And technology is rapidly changing the way we live, work and play.
According to the Census Bureau, there are more than 89,000 governmental bodies in the United States, representing many times that number of people in elected, appointed or career administrative decision-making roles. Despite this significant universe, leadership best practices specific to the public sector are under-theorized and under-represented.
Leading people and organizations is about more than giving speeches, passing new laws, building a strong public workforce or enforcing regulations effectively. We need to pay attention to the personal factors and challenges that underlie effective leadership. Here, blended from reviews of published research and practice along with interviews with elected local and state government leaders in California, are five key personal strategies:
1. Master the internal. It all starts with you: honest, open and real. Mastering the internal is an in-depth process of exploring self-awareness (who am I), self-management (how am I) and self-care (what I need). Self-awareness is shaped by origin, identity, experiences, strengths, socialization and expertise. Self-management brings emotional regulation. Mastery comes from an honest appraisal of our triggers and the ways we address stress to operate at peak levels.
2. Be careful with data. Partisanship is all too alive and well; much information is slanted to support one ideological point of view or another. Be conscious about how data is gathered and where it comes from. Like a detective, analyze data from multiple perspectives to make informed decisions. This process blends mind (statistics, policies, institutional knowledge, economics) and heart (people, context, power and influence) to gather a full spectrum of information and reduce the likelihood of decisions being made on the basis of biased information.
3. Visualize and direct strategically. Vision is like a lighthouse guiding us in the desired direction. Effective government leaders are driven by purpose and a focus on achieving long-term goals that benefit the entire community. This means translating vision into workable actions and thinking beyond the immediate context. Moreover, this means understanding that there are always going to be some things you have no control over.
4. Engage with integrity. This is the conduit for sustaining legitimacy and building political capital. Build trust by sharing experience, actively listening, and recognizing and voicing reliable communications. Remember that both verbal and non-verbal communications send messages and that inconsistency in words and actions challenges trust.
5. Lead through change. When circumstances change, how do you respond? Recognize that change is natural and inevitable. Learn to be comfortable with not knowing what is coming. Willingness to engage with not knowing means evaluating your plans through honest questioning and being open to new ways of doing things when the status quo is not working. This involves acknowledging mistakes, which can feel vulnerable and humbling, but humility allows us to learn. And leading through change involves recognizing wins along the way. Celebrate contributions and progress. We are all in it together, after all.