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The 7 Characteristics of Highly Successful Government Leaders

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

Here are seven characteristics the most successful government leaders share:

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 begin understanding yourself. One of the best pieces of advice I received 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 colleagues. Many of the most successful leaders share their personal vulnerabilities and lead with their heart as well as their head. Being passionate about your work and agency’s mission can be part of this and is closely tied to the next three characteristics…

Characteristic 3: Reputation.

Would you follow someone you knew had little to no knowledge of your agency’s mission or policy domain? This can often be the case when political appointees take charge of 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. Yet, there are ways the uninitiated can succeed – 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 led a successful turnaround. But it’s rare. Just look at the “heck of a job” done by past leaders of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and how their reputations colored their leadership…

Characteristic 4: Ethical behavior.

It’s a question you wouldn’t think you have to ask—but you do: Can your employees, and those for whom you work, trust you to do the right thing? The best leaders solicit feedback from those above and below them in the chain of command, always seeking to establish trust and, as a result, the ethical standards for individuals and the organization.

Characteristic 5: Willingness to listen.

Listening is a skill (a skill not easily mastered). It is more than just hearing someone else talk, it is a casting aside of the ego to allow oneself to sincerely care about what another has to say. Virtually all of the most senior leaders I’ve met are master listeners (and, by extension, learners). Fortunately for all you talkers, there are plenty of training resources on this topic.

Characteristic 6: Ability to communicate.

Creating effective ways to communicate your vision -- directly, through incentives 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. He got people to adopt these principles by sponsoring an award for teams of feds who lived up to these ideals. He called it the Hammer Award, named so to symbolize the breaking down of bureaucracy. It became a powerful symbol that communicated his vision to the front lines of government.

Characteristic 7: Optimism.

A “can do” positive outlook – even in the face of immense challenge – 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,” adopting the Energizer Bunny as his spirit animal. With this philosophy, things I thought were not possible actually happened, oftentimes because we started from the premise that they could!

I’m sure there are more key characteristics but this is a start. Feel free to offer your suggestions in the comments below!

Other Blog Posts in This Series:

  • Leadership in a Changing World (Part 1)
  • Leadership: It’s a Personal Commitment (Part 2)
  • Leadership: It’s Building a Team and Processes within a Governance Structure (Part 3)
  • Leadership: The Approach Depends on the Context (Part 4)

Image via Pressmaster/Shutterstock.com

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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