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A Passion for Leadership


The value of government is much in the news these days as the presidential campaign continues to unfold. Many on the right argue there is too much government – overregulating, overspending and badly run – while those on the left just want to increase the benefits (and the cost) of government. But with all of the media emphasis on politics, little has been written about the hard job of actually leading reform in public institutions.

Fortunately, former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has more than filled that void with A Passion for Leadership. There are many books on the subject of leadership of organizations, but precious few recently about leading reform in the public setting of government institutions.

Gates’ examples are mostly drawn from his leadership roles in three very large institutions – as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, as president of Texas A&M University and as secretary of defense. Although these are very large institutions, his observations about the role of the leader – and what ought to drive the performance in office of the public servant leader – apply to leaders of governments at every level. My service has been in local government, in the leadership role of the city manager and in the advisory role as a consultant to local government leaders throughout the US. I can attest to the applicability of Gates’ commentary to the local setting.

“… Over time they get fat, sloppy, lazy and set in their ways,” says Gates, whose beginning point in this book about leadership is a solid discussion of the way government organizations work and why they are so hard to improve. Gates notes that if the leader asks a department for an improvement plan, the resulting plan won’t contain any real reform: “… bureaucracy is never capable of reforming itself.”

His book is subtitled Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service. In Gates’ view, the leader of a government institution has to be about reform (the bureaucratic term is “continuous improvement”), otherwise she or he is not leading.

Every government, regardless of size, is a monopoly and does not have the continuous imperative of competition to drive change. Improving public organizations is uniquely and constantly the responsibility of the leader. As Gates says, “… even reformed bureaucracies are magnetically drawn back toward their natural state: torpor, complacency, protecting the status quo, inertia and inefficiency.”     

While Gates says that, “…the world of business … has its own issues with bureaucracy,” (he’s served on 10 boards of directors), improving the operation of public organizations is so much more difficult because the hard decisions are implemented in a public setting, with career employees who are especially change averse, and in a culture of risk avoidance where doing nothing is safer than acting. In truth, the motivated leader is the only source of improvement in reforming (improving or changing, the words are interchangeable) government. Professional managers who don’t get this and take it to heart are mere place-holders for a happy, complacent bureaucracy.

“Successfully leading reform in bureaucracies, large and small, is not for the fainthearted or for the egomaniacal,” Gates says. The good leader begins by listening to stakeholders, inside and outside the organization. She accepts the in-place staff as her own and can best underscore that point by not dragging along a supporting cast from her previous assignments. But the leader must formulate her agenda for reform on her own, having completed a solid listening tour: “The leader alone must decide the path forward.”  (Gates interchanges leader gender pronouns throughout the book – kudos for that.) In other words, the leader must independently settle on her path to success – for which she’ll ultimately be accountable. Nobody (even city councils) can do it for her.

A Passion is chockablock full of wisdom and useful tips and wonderful, on-point quotations. The first order of business for the leader is to control his calendar. Success requires the leader to be actively involved in the implementation of his initiatives for reform. Micro-knowledge about the details of the reform is essential, but is not the same as micro-managing. Monitoring the progress of reform is hard work and requires close attention to detail. He must actively engage the employees – in person, in his own voice –to build support for reform. And reorganizing, moving the boxes around on the organization chart, is not reform – unless it’s actually delayering the bureaucracy. “Identifying talent and growing it,” Gates says, “are two of the primary responsibilities of the leader.”

The act of formulating the needed direction, however, has to be transparent with open communication and discussion.  Gates is a fan of task forces that transcend internal boundaries (“silo busters”), although he’s clear that the leader should select the chair and control the scope of work. He is also certain that deadlines – short deadlines – are imperative, to create the necessary sense of urgency so it is clear that reform is about action, avoiding analysis paralysis.

Unlike so much of the literature on leadership, Gates is all about the interaction between the leader and the people she leads, including stakeholders – whether elected officials, advisory boards, or citizen groups. With politicians it’s sometimes hard, listening to an uninformed person with a microphone bloviate. But doing so with respect is part of being professional and can have a positive result: He cites the wise counsel of Bill Casey, who was his mentor at CIA, that respectful listening – especially to members of elected oversight boards – will produce some learning even if, “… 95% of what someone says is nuts … doesn’t mean that you should ignore the 5% that might be useful.”

Every person who has served in the military as an officer knows that the most important leadership characteristic is personal example. Gates devotes a full chapter to the qualities that are key to success, beginning with his observation that, “The potential single point of failure” in reform is the leader himself. The leader must have his ego under control (practice giving colleagues credit for good work) and possess the highest standard of integrity (adhere to the truth and always do what you say you will do), the self-discipline to do the whole job of the leader (not just those parts of it that he likes doing), the courage to do what’s right for the institution, and a sense of humor to lighten the load of implementing reform that folks don’t want. He quotes Jacques Barzun: “To govern well requires two distinct kinds of ability: political skill and the administrative mind.” True indeed for every city manager or county administrator.

Gates is excellent in describing ways a leader can be effective in spite of the many constraints of leading a public enterprise. As useful as his book is about leadership it is not a book about managing – the art of working through others to produce organizational accomplishment. But that’s OK – there is a lot of literature about management techniques. A Passion for Leadership fills a void in the literature about what it takes to successfully lead a public enterprise. And though Gates’ perspective is that of very large enterprises, his observations and his wisdom are relevant for every professional manager who works for elected officials, regardless of the size of the governmental unit.


About the guest blogger:
Jerry Newfarmer, former city manager of Cincinnati, Ohio, and San Jose, Calif., is president and CEO of the government-consulting firm Management Partners. He also served as city manager of Fresno, Calif., and assistant city manager of Oakland, Calif. Newfarmer, a national leader in local government performance management, has been active in ICMA throughout his career.

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Douglas Shontz

Eli Levine (via Facebook): I'd disagree. A society requires dynamic leadership from government organizations that constantly improves and readapts to society's needs and desires. The institutions are replaceable, just as the people are, meaning that while there only should be one governing entity, the content and nature of that entity is up for question. A government is only as sluggish and incompetent as the people who staff them on high and down below. It's still shape up or prepare to be shipped out.

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