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Leading in Government: The Loneliest Team Sport Around

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Leading can be lonely...

Senior leaders can feel lonely when they have significant responsibilities and oftentimes little authority or control over a situation, especially when they have no one they can turn to.  I’ve seen several approaches to addressing this. 

In the 1990s, the Reinventing Government team quietly hosted a neutral forum for interested agency leaders to get together with their peers to talk about common leadership issues. These forums usually were organized around agencies with similar challenges, but not necessarily similar policy issues.  These meetings, of about a dozen agency heads, would talk about issues such as working with unions, managing relationships with the White House or their inspectors general, etc.  The discussions weren’t around policy or politics, but leadership challenges when working in the public sector.  These forums were especially helpful for agency heads that had only previously worked in the private sector.

Another approach, advocated by Colin Powell when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was to create a small informal team of advisors (a la the A-Team), each with different a perspective and skill.  This small team would be comprised of:

  • Someone who serves as “the visionary,” who was always pushing the envelope and looking over the horizon.
  • Someone who serves as the “confessor,” or executive coach, who would provide advice on how the leader is behaving in various situations and feedback on how they might approach them differently.
  • Someone who serves as the “enforcer” who ensures closure and follow through on whatever is decided during the course of the day.

These were not fixed roles, but were generally useful guides for this small team. This configuration was not on the organization chart and all of the individuals had “real” roles elsewhere. 

Leading Is a team sport...  

Increasingly, the role of senior leaders is to serve in a shared leadership role, since oftentimes he or she may not have authority to direct staff from other agencies, command resources, or even have the legal authority to act.

A recent IBM Center report by Dr. Jane Fountain is a guide to leading cross-agency collaborative initiatives.  It says that there are two key components: collaborative leadership skills and organizational processes and structures.

With respect to collaborative leadership skills, she says that effective leaders act as brokers of network activities and she notes:

Key skills of network brokers typically include:

  • Ability to work with other professionals whose perspectives differ from their own
  • Demonstrating fairness
  • Practicing active listening
  • Sharing
  • Flexibility
  • Ability to envision new ways of operating
  • Capacity to build strong professional relationships
  • Ability to communicate openly
  • Ability to take calculated risks.

And with respect to organizational processes and structures, Dr. Fountain focuses on the role of effective teams, noting: 

Over hundreds of studies, five conditions hold for effective team performance that demonstrates that a group is really a team:

  • Teams have clear boundaries, members who are interdependent, and stable membership over time.
  • Teams have a clear, compelling direction focusing on ends to be achieved, not simply means.
  • The team structure—its task, composition, and the central norms and processes in use— facilitates the work of the team.
  • Resources and support are sufficient and available from the team’s broader environment.
  • A champion is available to resolve difficulties, to leverage new opportunities and to help with major transitions.

Other Blog Posts in This Series:

Image via Kjpargeter/

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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