Troubled federal bureaucracies require leaders as never before. And slowly but surely the civil service is discovering new forms of leadership to meet contemporary needs.
he federal bureaucracy is in turmoil. The civil service is scrambling to meet demands to cut staffs and budgets while complying with mandates to improve performance, accountability and customer service. The executive branch needs leaders like never before.
Unfortunately, the civil service cannot look to the nation's political leadership for much inspiration. In the search for the policy themes and leadership styles that will convince a disgruntled public to entrust them with the reins of power, today's politicians often assume hostile postures toward so-called big government. It appears as if new forms of civil service leadership will have to come from within. But are federal managers up to the challenge?
To find out, Government Executive interviewed more than 20 executives and managers, including members of the Senior Executive Service, who recently received Presidential Rank Awards for distinguished service. Judging from these interviews, federal managers already are creating new forms of leadership. Gone from their language are the old tenets of leadership: Command, Control, Compartmentalize and Cope. In their place is a new paradigm captured in four new leadership C's: Communicate, Collaborate, Coach and Catalyze. The four actions, especially powerful when exercised together, convey a style of leadership not common to the government in days gone by.
These roles and skills are coming to the fore in spite of, not because of, management development paths now existing in government. Necessity breeds invention, and the civil service is improvising in response to turbulence-budget shocks, public hostility, disaffected workers and frustrated customers.
Skilled generalist managers able to combine such skills were supposed to be developed by systems, such as the Senior Executive Service (SES), put in place by the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act. But, as Civil Service Reform: Building a Government that Works, a new book from the Brookings Institution, argues, "The structure of the civil service system undermined the SES' promise. The system recruits and rewards specialists, most often very narrow specialists. Its stovepipe career development pattern further promotes narrow specialization, not general management competence."
Civil Service Reform concludes that broader management skills are sorely needed, especially as authority previously held by central agencies or offices in government is delegated or decentralized throughout the federal establishment. A 15- to 20-year effort is needed to recruit and train a smaller central group of highly competent managers to lead the agencies, do battle with Congress and serve the public interest, say its authors-Donald F. Kettl of the University of Wisconsin, Patricia W. Ingraham of Syracuse University in New York, Ronald P. Sanders of the Maxwell Center for Advanced Public Management in Washington and Brookings guest scholar Constance Horner. Sanders is a former top-ranking Defense Department human resources manager, and Horner served as director of the Office of Personnel Management during the second Reagan Administration.
Today's managers cannot afford to wait 15 to 20 years, and the interviews demonstrate that they are forging ahead in response to changing conditions. The growing complexity of the global economy and environment has especially affected the new management paradigm, says Robert Rosen, author of Leading People (Viking Press, 1995). In the past, Rosen says, leaders could rely on a combination of charisma and specialized expertise that worked well in the traditional hierarchical and predictable bureaucracy. No one, he adds, can command all the expertise needed to solve contemporary problems, hence the increased need for collaboration and teamwork.
Downsizing of agencies also forces change, federal executives add. "When you had many levels in an agency, you could rely on the old ways of control," says Elinor Adensam, a deputy division director at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "But we can't manage by layers anymore. Now we are going to have to depend on people's decision-making abilities at lower levels in the organization."
Agency managers are also changing their style in response to the shifting expectations of people both inside and outside their organizations. External customers and internal staff both demand more responsiveness, says David Leclaire, a deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Energy.
Other trends may contribute to the emergence of the new leadership style, but, there is little doubt that executives today are doing more communicating, collaborating, coaching and catalyzing than ever before.
To Richard Marquez, assistant manager for management and administration in the Department of Energy's Albuquerque operations office, communication is the most important aspect of leadership. But Marquez, who oversees six divisions with a total of 525 federal and contractor employees, has concluded that it doesn't come naturally. "You have to be disciplined and make it a force of habit," he says. Marquez issues a weekly e-mail letter discussing pending DOE business to all employees in his organization. He also includes his own views on issues of the day and events in his private life. "It's remarkable how many comments I received from people about my discussion of the soccer team I coach," says Marquez.
Stanley E. Morris, director of the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, which combats money laundering, emphasizes individual communication. "I have a fairly simple rule that I've tried to follow over the years," Morris says. "I like to call it the Morris Rule: 'People are more likely to do what you want them to do if you tell them what you want them to do than if you don't tell them.' We all tend to make assumptions that people know what we want them do. We often forget the basic human element of communication. Personal communications must be clear, coherent and careful."
It's important, too, to tell people why you want them to accomplish the task. Nearly all of the executives interviewed stressed the importance of communicating the individual employee's role in the bigger picture. "It's my job to help people see and understand the larger context in which they are operating," Morris says.
And listening is an important part of communication. "I don't learn much when I'm talking. I now try hard to listen," reports Leclair.
While government executives have always had to collaborate with each other to some extent, the previous dominant leadership model emphasized compartmentalization-dealing with individual offices separately, seldom bringing them together for collective brainstorming. John Seal, chief management officer at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, recalls that he used to deal with agency offices separately. "Now, I try to bring people together from all across the agency to get different viewpoints," he says. "We no longer live in a stovepipe world. I've seen too much 'we versus them' mentality in government. We need to shift to 'we and we.'"
Executives described pragmatic reasons for their move toward collaborative management. Many noted their frustration with "lack of buy-in" from their staffs during organizational decision-making. Collaboration simply appears to be more effective. Says David Leclaire, "I've become much more collaborative. I graduated from the Air Force Academy and was trained in command and control management. Now, I try hard to work with people and get them involved in decision-making. I want people to feel an ownership of decisions. If they don't buy in, they won't support the decision. The days of command and control are over."
Leclaire, who is responsible for program support in Energy's Office of Defense Programs, uses the budget process as an illustration of the need for increased participation in decision-making: "We have a budget of $3.5 billion, but it is going to get smaller. There is going to be increased competition for scarce resources and there are a lot of people who want part of that budget. We are going to have to examine different approaches to getting our job done and we are going to need new ways to work out our differences."
While the term "empowerment" has become part of management lingo, executives described their new relationship with employees in terms of collaboration and partnership. The new leadership appears to be moving away from hierarchy toward peer relationships. Employees are seen as partners and collaborators, not underlings to be empowered.
The role of collaborator also signifies a significant departure for many who grew up and prospered in the traditional bureaucracy in which they alone were responsible for their work. Many described the difficulty of delegating. They found the transition from hands-on to hands-off emotionally traumatic. Many began collaborating as a way to stay involved in work and add value-while still letting go. "As I moved up in the organization, I realized I couldn't make all the decisions myself," says Jill Lytle, a deputy assistant secretary at the Energy Department. "It was a real struggle to find the right balance as to when to delegate and what bounds to set. Over time, I learned to identify more and more situations where I could delegate and became more comfortable with my new role."
The new leadership is also characterized by a genuine desire by executives to develop the people who report to them. They say they want to be mentors and coaches, not bosses. Listen to Lynn Wigbels, assistant director for international programs at NASA: "My job is to help people grow. I have to challenge people to do things that they haven't done in the past."
Michael J. Cocchiola, director of the Defense Printing Service, calls coaching, cheerleading and mentoring his most important jobs. "I am trying to create leaders within our organization. I want to get the right people and bring them along as leaders."
The executives all talked about the importance of understanding people's individual concerns. "I've learned you to have to pay attention to people on an individual basis," says Lytle. "You need to understand their needs and connect with them. This is especially important in a technical agency like Energy, when you may forget about the people part of your job."
Rosen views coaching as a cornerstone of the new leadership. He says it's not enough to focus on people's individual development needs. "The job of the leader is to increasingly create the right environment which brings out the best in people and allows them to do their best work," he says.
True leaders do more than nurture their organizations and staffs. They make things happen. They act "as the stimulus in bringing about or hastening a result," as one dictionary defines the catalyst's role.
Executives spoke passionately about the need to set the organization's vision and serve as the driving force for achieving it. Daniel Beard, former commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, describes his evolution: "I couldn't manage an organization of 8,000 people. I had to be a leader. I had to provide inspiration and a sense of direction. I had to set the tone." During his tenure at Reclamation, Beard led a major reinvention effort, which included downsizing by 1,500 employees, eliminating management layers, closing offices and radically restructuring the agency's goals and business processes.
Cocchiola emphasizes the need for persistence and consistency in advocating the vision. "You can't deviate from the vision," he says. "Your challenge is to get everybody marching toward the vision."
As with the collaborator role, the catalyst role also involves letting go of work you have done previously. "I realized that my new job is to provide leadership and direction rather than doing the job itself," says James Milhoan, a deputy executive director at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
A major part of the catalyst role is thinking strategically. "My role," says Tom Dausch, director of the Office of Personnel Management's Eastern Management Development Center, "is to think strategically about where my operation has to be down the road. While part of my job is to acknowledge and accept the fine work that is being done now, the major part of my job is to think three to five years ahead." Dausch's challenge is to keep the center's curriculum relevant to the learning needs of federal executives so the center can stay competitive.
Catalysts are activists, since creating an organizational vision is a collaborative rather than a solitary endeavor. Executives describe it as an ongoing, active process in which they serve as chief nag to drive and inspire their organization toward a lofty goal or new future. The catalyst can't get the job done alone, says Malcolm Peterson, NASA comptroller. "You need people who worry about the trains running on time. You need to combine the power of people who are visionaries with people who make things happen every day. Visionaries need people who have the ability to focus on nuts and bolts."
Public Service Values
The four C's of contemporary leadership capture a broad range of abilities executives need in today's government. Federal officials interviewed by Government Executive observed that modern leaders must be flexible and adaptable, willing to take risks and articulate with enthusiasm the enduring values and current missions of the organizations they serve.
Looking ahead toward a new generation of government leaders, the Brookings Institution authors see the need for a long-term effort to develop a more broadly educated cadre of high-level officials more similar to the British senior service than to any American counterpart. Government, they write, will need "far more carefully crafted structures to elicit leadership for change and renewal from within. To build this capacity, the next generation of civil servants will need three clusters of qualities: initiative, characterized by a willingness to exercise discretionary authority and a preference for autonomy as a work style; strong intellectual abilities, shaped by a broad liberal education and strong technical skills; and a spirited desire to serve the public. These qualities warrant special effort. They are needed to overcome a widespread public sense of federal workers' intellectual deficiencies, technological backwardness, passivity, fussy process orientation and arrogant indifference to the public they serve. Without a special effort to overcome these perceptions, they will undermine recruitment and become self-fulfilling prophecies. The public service may never reemerge."