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Where Will Government’s Next Leaders Come From?


The need for new executive leaders in the federal government is growing as baby boomers retire, but the willingness of up-and-coming managers to become leaders may be diminishing. Why would people choose to become a leader in the federal government, especially when it requires the ability to move, the possibility of political attacks, a lot of work with constrained pay and other barriers at every turn?

The need to replenish executive leaders in the federal government is no longer an issue for the future. The exodus is in full swing, and the need is here and now. Where will the new crop of executive leaders come from?

One source of new leaders is outside government. People who have had a career in private enterprise may want to expand their commitment to public service. With jobless rates still high, the federal government could offer a path to gainful employment. The shrinking military also might provide a substantial reservoir of leaders willing to enter civilian public service. Yet leading in the federal government, especially in the current political environment, is no cakewalk. Why would anyone want to step into an executive leadership role?

One standard set of responses is that people are willing to assume the mantle for gains in power, pay or prestige. These three rationales have one common denominator: narrowly defined self-interest. These rationales suggest people will step into executive roles only if they receive remuneration to compensate for the costs of leadership. Some even think those who aspire to leadership do so to capture the perks while attempting to sidestep the costs of actually leading.

When I am asked, ‘Why lead?’ I tell people to start from a broader perspective. Instead, I ask them, “What is the secret to living a full and complete life?” This may sound like a question that has no answer or requires a philosophical debate. Yet time and time again, although the language may differ, people arrive at remarkably similar responses.

To sum up the responses: The secret is that living a full and complete life requires striving to create value for others. The operative word “striving” means creating value for others is no easy feat. Leaders have to struggle, work hard and even battle to create value. Indeed, a deep investment in education, personal development and experience often is needed before someone is ready to lead.

Creating value ultimately involves serving others. This can range from products and services that people purchase to the provision of public goods and services that benefit recipients such as low-income families.

While the desire to live a full and complete life has a notion of self-interest, the true source of its motivation comes from community interest, the desire to serve others in ways that are perceived as beneficial. Herein lies at least one important moral basis for choosing to lead.

Leadership of this kind (one variant is called servant leadership) requires choosing the domain in which value is to be created, understanding the perspectives of all stakeholders and formulating challenges from all perspectives. Trade-offs and conflicts between the benefits to the many versus the costs to the few can and do arise. Such issues can make creating value even more challenging. Choosing a course of action requires creativity and wise leadership, so the situation can be addressed in all of its complexity. It is in these contexts that the word “striving” can be more clearly understood.

If striving to create value for others is central to your life, then seeking an executive leadership position in the federal government is a singular opportunity. The U.S. government has the standing and resources to change the world. I can think of no other organization with the same unique potential to create value for others.

Of course, changing the world through public service can involve struggle, hard work and battles. Success is not guaranteed. Funding, internal and external politics, territorial battles and byzantine rules and regulations present tremendous challenges. These and other impediments could affect the supply of leaders. But the federal government can attract potential leaders by emphasizing the opportunities to create value for others.

In President Kennedy’s immortal words that called so many baby boomers to service, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Perhaps it is time to hear this clarion call once again.

Duce a mente

(May you lead by thinking)

Jackson Nickerson is the Frahm Family Professor of Organization and Strategy at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, the Associate Dean and Director of the Brookings Executive Education, and a Senior Scholar in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. An award winning researcher and teacher, Jackson specializes in leadership, strategic and critical thinking, leading change, and innovation. While in a prior life he worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he now advises government agencies, not-for profits, and for-profit businesses on ways to improve performance. He is the author of Leading Change in a Web 2.1 World.

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