Qualities of Leadership

Are federal executives as good as a new survey suggests?

In the run-up to the Oct. 5 Excellence in Government Conference, Government Executive unveiled a study we conducted with McKinsey & Co. designed to measure the organizational health of the federal enterprise. The survey tapped the views of 513 senior officials among our readers on topics covered by McKinsey's Organizational Health Index, and then we compared them to McKinsey's much larger sample of private sector institutions.

Among the most interesting results: Our federal sample held quite favorable views of their leadership, albeit lower than those of private sector counter-parts. Sixty percent rated managers and executives favorably-as role models and decision-makers, as highly qualified and effective. But that was 9 percentage points lower than in the private sector.

The results seemed counterintuitive in light of what many see as a crisis of leadership in many U.S. institutions. At a time when trust in government remains low, and government is bearing the blame for many problems at home and abroad, why should its leadership get good marks?

It surely did not in a just-released survey of 600 former White House fellows, many of whom went on to leadership positions in public, private and nonprofit institutions. Despite their firsthand experience in Washington, only 14 percent of fellows expressed "a great deal of confidence" in leaders in the executive branch, only 4 percent higher than that of the general population.

At the EIG conference, leadership was a central topic, beginning with a keynote address from retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, whose new book, Leading the Charge: Leadership Lessons From the Battlefield to the Boardroom (Palgrave MacMillan, 2009), details failures at the top in industry, religion, the media and the military.

Zinni recalled the search for leaders from nonelite groups began about 100 years ago with a focus on finding and developing "good people" of strong character. By mid-century, leadership development included education to ensure competency in an increasingly specialized economy. And by the beginning of the new century, more was needed: opportunity for a broad variety of experiences and mentors, and a chance to manage by trial and error in developing broader knowledge, and agility and adaptability in a fast-changing world.

He sees a need to focus anew on values, ethics and morality, in light of leadership failures in all sectors attributable to a dearth of good character. And today's leaders should carefully study the characteristics and aspirations of those they lead. The most significant change they face is a workforce of horizontal and vertical diversity, increasingly multiracial and female, and now including six generations, all with different values and approaches to the world.

Leaders can and should be taught how to think more critically and strategically, to look and plan years instead of months ahead-a lesson stressed by Zinni and Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen, also a speaker at EIG. Another imperative, emphasized at the conference by former CIA director Michael Hayden, is for leaders to be accomplished communicators, both internally and as the embodiment of their institutions in the world outside.

And finally, as Zinni put it, "If you are not a master of technology, you will fall behind"-a point echoed at EIG by federal Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients, and the administration's two top technology appointees-Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra and Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra.

Turning the McKinsey results upside down, it's probably not so great that 40 percent of our sample gives their leadership low marks. The study shows that people don't believe they are consulted on issues that affect them, and suggests, as did Zients at the conference, that one priority for leaders should be greater engagement with the people they lead.

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