Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Governments today face serious, seemingly intractable public management issues that go to the core of effective governance and leadership. Government leaders are presented with difficult choices, but also unprecedented opportunities.
The right kind of leadership approach and style can drive change in government

Governments today face serious, seemingly intractable public management issues that go to the core of effective governance and leadership -- testing the very form, structure, and capacity required to meet these problems head-on.

These challenges run the gamut from the 2008 near-meltdown of the global financial system to the Y2K challenge, pandemics, ending veteran homelessness, and natural or man-made disasters. Many are difficult to anticipate, get out in front of, and handle. In most manifestations, they do not follow orderly and linear processes.

As Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, observes, “There was a time when leaders shared a sense that the problems they faced could be managed through the application of well-known rules and linear logic. Those days are gone. Most of today’s important problems have a significant wicked component, making progress impossible if we persist in applying inappropriate methods and tools to them.”

Along with responding to such complex and non-routine challenges, government leaders must also operate in the “new normal” of fiscal austerity.

Characteristics of Challenges Faced

These complex and often non-rountine challenges are increasingly cross-cutting and intergency in nature. Responding to such challenges extend far beyond any individual agency’s or leaders’ ability to respond!

Understanding Context is Crucial for Effective Leadership

There are different types of leadership approaches, from transactional to transforma­tive and beyond. A survey of insights from leadership experts and gurus makes one thing clear—there is no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership.

What does seem evi­dent is the importance of context when honing one’s leadership approach. It becomes apparent that effective leaders must possess and exercise a certain level of contextual intelligence. As Professor Joseph Nye stresses in Leadership, Power and Contextual Intelligence, “Understanding context is crucial for effective leadership. Some situations [may] call for autocratic decisions and some require the [exact] opposite. There is an infinite variety of contexts in which leaders have to operate, but it is particularly important for leaders to understand culture, distribution of resources, followers’ needs and demands, time urgency, and information flows.”

Leading through Complex, Non-Routine Challenges

Complex challenges, or so-called wicked problems, tend to have innumerable causes and are hard to define, making their mitigation resistant to predetermined solutions or traditional problem-solving approaches. In certain instances, the scope, nature, and extent of these challenges eliminate the notion of quick fixes or one-size-fits-all solutions.

The resources needed to properly address these wicked problems often transcend the capacity of any single agency. As a result, government leaders will find it necessary to go beyond established parameters and institutional strictures, working across organizational boundaries in pursuit of multilayered, networked approaches tailored to a specific challenge, or what some have called collaborative or shared leadership.

This often demands that today’s government leaders be more innovative, collaborative, and flexible. It also may require government to supplement core skills with additional expertise that may be better suited to tackling complex, non-routine challenges.

Examples of Collaborative Leadership in Action

  • Using Managed Networks. Ed DeSeve puts a finer point on this leadership approach in his IBM Center report, Managing Recovery: An Insider’s View. DeSeve led the implementation of the $840 billion Recovery Act in 2009, which is a perfect example of tackling a complex, non-routine challenge in government -- the doling out and tracking of significant amounts of federal dollars. For DeSeve his success relied on forging an integrated system of relationships -- amongst federal agency, state and local entities, and other stakeholders - that reached across both formal and informal organizational boundaries—what DeSeve calls a managed network, which is a key tool of collaborative leadership.
  • Managing “Big Science:” A Case Study of the Human Genome Project. Dr. Francis Collins rep­resents a new type of leader in government. Prior to becoming NIH director, Collins led an international coalition consisting of other government organizations, the private sec­tor, and the academic community as part of the Human Genome Project (HGP). In Managing “Big Science:” A Case Study of the Human Genome Project, Prof. Harry Lambright highlights that Collins faced the challenge of reorienting HGP from a loose consortium into a tight alliance with a small circle of performers and decision-makers.Instead of relying on the traditional command-and-control leadership style, Collins relied on a more collegial, collaborative style.  However, as the project began to evolve, maturate, and face direct competition from an external party, Collins recognized that the leadership approach of old would no longer be as effective. Exemplifying the importance of contextual intelligence, Dr. Collins recognized that it took a certain leadership to launch HGP, and another kind to make the changes that took it to a successful conclusion.

Depending on the challenge faced, government leaders may need to fundamentally transform how their organizations operate to meet mission. For example, when facing the challenge of budget cuts and significant resource reallocation, transformational change that can deliver mission value more efficiently will be increasingly important.

  • Establishing the National Center for Advancing Translational Science. Francis Collins now director of NIH recognized the need to more effectively translate NIH’s basic research into actual medical applications -- this was driven by his desire to focus on outcomes!!  His vision - establish the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) clashed with the status quo at the NHI. Collins hit the ground running, setting goals at the outset, having clarity as to means, using effectively the power of his office, and most importantly forging collaborative networks and support inside and outside the NIH.  He was once again successful!


We are in the midst of an exciting, engaging, yet trying period marked by uncertainty, significant challenges, undeniable opportunities, and indelible aspirations. Today’s most effective government leaders can spark the imagination to look beyond the day-to-day urgencies and reflect on the serious problems and critical challenges they face today into tomorrow.

Leaders are responsible for envisioning, shaping, and safeguarding the future, creating clarity amidst uncertainty. This is no small feat and it is made increasingly difficult in the 21st century, where rapid, unforeseen change seems to be the only constant.

In the end, these brief examples illustrate that effective collaborative leadership is about connecting the dots, achieving interagency unity of effort, and in most cases doing this outside traditional chain-of-command authority.

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Be sure to also read the other blog posts in our series on Six Trends Driving Change in Government: