Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Leadership “experts” list dozens of characteristics that they say are important for successful leaders. Many lists overlap, but I think they really come from the experiences and observations of the writers.

One former senior level political appointee, Linda Springer, recently observed that a common set of successful characteristics private sector – being decisive, directive, and a risk taker – could actually undermine success in the public sector.  So what works best in the public sector?

Here’s my list of seven characteristics I see as the foundation for a personal commitment to being an effective public sector leader. These characteristics hold true for effective managers, as well:

Characteristic 1:  Self-awareness. Taking the Myers-Briggs personality test is only a start!  The Emotional Intelligence Quotient, popularized by Daniel Goldman, and Marcus Buckingham’s command to draw on your inner strengths, are also important ways to being understanding yourself.  One of the best pieces of advice I got as a developing manager was to never blame someone else, or the circumstances, for your failures, but rather to analyze what I did or didn’t do to allow the failure to happen.

Characteristic 2:  Authenticity. Look at any leader you admire.  One of the traits you’ll likely see is their ability to empathize and connect with those with whom they work, in a way that others see them as being “real” and human, such as showing emotions and sharing some personal vulnerabilities. That is, leading with the heart as well as the head.  Being passionate about your work and agency’s mission can be part of this characteristic, as well.  This characteristic ties closely to the next three characteristics. . . . .

Characteristic 3:  Reputation. Would you follow someone who you knew had little to no knowledge of your agency’s mission, policy domain, or processes?  This is often a risk with some political appointees being asked to lead an agency.  Having the right professional skills and credibility in the eyes of your peers, employees, and stakeholders is an important element for effective leadership.  It can happen otherwise – just look at Charles Rossetti’s leadership of the IRS in the 1990s.  He was the first non-tax lawyer to head the agency and he led a successful turnaround.  But it is rare.  Just look at the experiences of some of the past leaders of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and how their reputations colored their leadership.

Characteristic 4:  Ethical behavior. Can you be trusted by your employees, and those for whom you work, to do the right thing?  While this seems pretty self-evident, it isn’t always the case.  Some say “ethics” is behaving well when no one is looking.  But in reality, especially in today’s electronically connected world, people are observing all the time.  But how do you find out what people think of you, when no one will tell you?

Characteristic 5:  Willingness to listen. Listening, experts say, is a skill.  It is more than just hearing someone else talk.  Virtually all of the most senior leaders I’ve met seem to exude this; you can really tell when someone is listening sincerely.  Fortunately, there are plenty of training resources on this topic!  However, keep in mind that there are both personal listening skills as well as organizational listening.

Characteristic 6:  Ability to communicate. Creating effective ways to communicate your vision  -- directly, through incentives, and/or through symbolic acts – can be one of the most powerful elements of getting action on key priorities.  The Reinventing Government effort in the 1990s, led by Vice President Al Gore, relied not only on his speeches at events but also a set of principles that he got people to pay attention to by sponsoring an award to teams of federal employees who demonstrated those principles in act.  He called this the Hammer Award, for breaking down bureaucracy, and it was a powerful symbolic action that communicated his message not only over an eight year period but also to the front lines of the government.

Characteristic 7:  Optimism. A “can do” positive outlook – even in the face of all odds – is often a defining characteristic of a good leader.  I used to work at the Government Accountability Office, so I didn’t come by this characteristic naturally.  But with constant urging from a wonderful leader at the National Performance Review, Bob Stone, I learned the value and power of optimism. He was perennially optimistic about everything and seemed to be generally right! In fact, he called himself “energizer in chief” and the the Energizer Bunny was his leitmotif.  And things I thought were not possible actually happened, oftentimes because we started from the premise that it could happen.

I’m sure I’ve not got the list -- or even some of the descriptions -- quite right, but this is a start.  Feel free to offer your suggestions!

Other Blog Posts in This Series:

Graphic Credit:  FreeDigitalPhoto by Stuart Miles