Context Matters

People often lament that government doesn’t run like a business. But the reality is that public officials cannot lead in exactly the same way as those in the private sector. The context is very different. Public sector managers and leaders must respond to a myriad of competing public demands—all while maintaining a high quality of life in a world of “no new taxes.” They face constant pressure to move quickly while ensuring everyone has input. Unlike their private sector counterparts focused on an established competitive market-driven strategy, public officials’ priorities can—and do—change depending upon legislative action. And for over 85 years, the School of Government at the University of North Carolina has worked with clients to help them understand the distinctions between the two and to fully appreciate what it means to govern.  

Having worked within the public sector for 30 years, engaging elected officials and government employees in developing the skills necessary to effectively lead, I hope I can help other consultants and practitioners of The Leadership Challenge® understand the context in which their governmental clients work and provide insights into how The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® can resonant.  

But first, some background. In 2010, the School of Government adopted The Leadership Challenge as the framework for teaching leadership because of its behavior- based approach, validity, and the fact that The Five Practices are easy to recall and apply. From the start, context has been at the forefront of the instructional design approach we used to create our curriculum. We have taught over 900 learners—including municipal and county elected officials, emerging local governmental leaders, chief district court judges, public defenders, and Master of Public Administration students—and based on our experience in this article I want to share a few of the lessons we’ve learned: 

Model the Way. Find your voice by clarifying your personal values. Set the example by aligning actions with shared values. In our programs at North Carolina, we teach leaders and managers to clarify their own values and assess how those values guide their behaviors in a variety of settings with diffuse power. Unlike many organizations in the private sector business world, government does not have one person at the top whose values dictate organizational direction. Instead, power and decision making is widely disbursed to prevent independent factions from gaining control and to allow for citizen input and access to the system. This means there is no single “decider” whose values or decisions drive the city or county. In North Carolina’s local government, for example, staff report to an appointed manager who reports to an elected board who “reports” to voters. Therefore, when we teach Model the Way, participants often ask, “Whose values are we talking about—mine, the mayor’s, the board’s, the community’s?” Within the public sector context, this is a good question. And in response, we specifically encourage our public leaders to examine their own values first and then share with others to identify shared values as a starting point for making decisions.

Inspire a Shared Vision.
 Envision a future by imagining exciting and ennobling possibilities.  Enlist others in a common vision by appealing to shared aspirations. This practice especially benefits those public managers who work with governing boards that do not have a long-term vision for their communities. Absent a vision from the board, public employees look to their departmental or organizational leaders to provide a sense of mission and purpose. And in instances such as these, we emphasize the important role managers play in developing a vision and working with staff to generate results. 

Public managers are adept problem solvers and when tasked with creating a vision, most begin by describing a problem and offering solutions. While this skill is very valuable in getting things done, this specific practice requires building a different skill. We encourage developing leaders to see the importance of looking forward and creating a picture of a future that is both exciting and appealing. 

Our clients work in the public eye, often making presentations to boards and citizen groups. So when we introduce learners to Inspire a Shared Vision, in addition to helping them learn how to create a vision, we use this opportunity to help them learn how to effectively communicate that vision to others by providing training on public speaking. It is a natural fit to combine the two. 

It takes time and practice to truly become effective at Inspiring a Shared Vision, and participants describe this is an uncomfortable exercise and a stretch, but well worth the effort.   

Challenge the Process.
Search for opportunities by seeking innovative ways to change, grow, and improve. Experiment and take risks by constantly generating small wins and learning from mistakes. Innovation is something local government leaders consistently strive for as they work under a dictate of “doing more with less.” But when exploring this practice in depth, it is the notion of “risk” that typically generates much discussion. In particular, governmental managers and leaders we work with acknowledge that their willingness to take risk is tempered by the knowledge they are using the public’s money. They also characterize their work as operating in a fishbowl and, as a result, fear that any mistake or change of mind will almost instantly make front-page news. 

Public leaders also talk about the risks associated with the rapidly changing and complex environment in which they operate. Unlike in private business, government programs and services are guided by federal, state, and local legislation and interrelated in ways that few outside the public sector fully understand. Making a change or perceived improvement to one part of a system can have unforeseen consequences to the other. Therefore, we have found it effective to reinforce with managers the importance of continually looking for ways to improve operations, and benchmark what they are doing with others. In fact, the idea of generating small wins especially resonates with our leaders as they frequently find it difficult to gain consensus from governing boards and others to make big changes to programs.  

Enable Others to Act.
 Foster collaboration by building trust and facilitating relationships.  Strengthen others by increasing self-determination and developing competence. Nearly all of the leaders participating in our programs recognize that their local governments—working alone—can’t solve the complex “wicked” problems facing communities. County lines don’t confine such widespread societal issues as teenage pregnancy; it takes businesses, non-profits, and regional authorities working together to tackle the issues. And when we focus on this practice, we take the opportunity to engage learners in exploring what collaboration means in the public sector—a concept that can be difficult due to local politics, differing agendas, and conflicting priorities. We highlight the role staff and managers play in building and maintaining relationships with other jurisdictions. Enable Others to Act is also a vehicle for exploring how to build trust with elected officials and the importance of articulating values as well as sharing visions for the future.  

Encourage the Heart.
 Recognize contributions by showing appreciation for individual excellence. Celebrate the values and victories by creating a spirit of community.  People choose a career in the public sector because of a powerful motivation to serve others and make a difference in their city or county. In a time of distrust and financial cutbacks, helping public officials motivate their staff without money—by recognizing their value and celebrating victories—is especially important. Those who apply this practice offer rewarding stories of heartwarming and unanticipated consequences.  

Donna Warner is a Certified Master-in-Training of The Leadership Challenge and Director, Local Elected Leaders Academy, School of Government at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill where she teaches management and leadership to city and county managers, department heads, chief district court judges, and local elected leaders. In addition, conducts planning and board retreats for multiple North Carolina municipalities and counties. Donna can be reached at warner@sog.unc.edu.     

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