A Holiday Gift of Transformational Leadership
Obama praises resilience and spirit of federal executives.
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” — President Obama
On Dec. 9, amidst the flurry of holiday activities, President Obama took time to deliver early and unexpected presents to federal workers. Speaking to over 1,000 government executives assembled in Washington, the president unwrapped a package of initiatives designed to increase the capabilities of the federal workforce.
In his largess, the president embodied the spirit of the season, but, more importantly, he exemplified the best behaviors of a transformational leader:
- Inspired motivation by recognizing the capabilities and contributions of federal employees and rallying them to confront the challenges of 21st century public service.
- Intellectual stimulation by encouraging and empowering employees to develop better means to perform their mission to serve the nation.
- Idealized influence by setting the example and highlighting the noble efforts of other exemplary civil servants.
- Individual consideration by initiating new measures to improve the recruitment, retention, development and recognition of public servants.
“You keep America running—our airports, our embassies, our financial system. You take care of our troops and their families,” Obama told the gathering. “You work under tough circumstances, whether its sequestration, pay freeze, shutdown, and more importantly, a political climate where folks too often talk down to government for cheap applause.”
But, he cautioned, “Americans don’t trust government like we used to” due to bad intent, political opportunism and constantly changing demands. The future, he admitted, does not look better. “This is going to continue to be a tough environment. There’s not going to be a lot of new money flowing. There is going to continue to be ideological battles . . . It’s going to continue to be easy copy for the press to focus on the one thing that goes wrong instead of the 99 things that go right.”
The president exhorted the government workforce to prevail against the storm of complaints and criticism. “Government can and must be a force for good,” he said, “There’s no greater opportunity to help more people, to make a bigger difference—in some cases to help millions, in some cases to help billions around the world—than to be in the positions that we are privileged to be in right now.”
The president enlisted government employees to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. He urged them to constantly ask: How we can serve America better? How can we yank this government into the 21st century and make it smarter and faster and more responsive? He encouraged introspection, inquiry and daily innovation to determine how to perform the job better. By employing powerful questions instead of direction, Obama actively engaged employees, giving them ownership of the issues and granting them the respect they deserve.
Choosing to invest his extremely limited time to attend this event, the president displayed his respect for public service and his commitment to improve it. “I am proud to be your partner,” he said, exhibiting the conscientious leadership he hoped to inspire.
He provided models to emulate by showcasing five government officials:
- Gary Penner of the State Department, who aided in the treatment and transportation of Ebola victims.
- Kevin Tokarski of the Transportation Department, who handled the disposal of chemical weapons in Syria.
- Julie Kramer of NASA, who oversaw the design and development of the Orion spacecraft.
- Elton Lester of the Housing and Urban Development Department, who in his 40th year of public service oversees the organization’s insured and assisted housing programs.
- Dwight Ink, a former longtime federal executive, who at 92 years old remains active in improving civil service.
Each of these individuals personifies the traits the president hopes to promote in public service: dedication, diversity, courage, commitment, creativity, technical credibility and customer service.
Assuming the role of servant leader, the president pledged his unwavering support to federal workers. “I’m going to keep doing everything I can to support you and your teams. I want you to know that I’ve got your back,” he said. In evidence of his claim, he outlined three initiatives to promote the continual growth and development of the federal workforce:
- The White House Leadership Development Program for Future Senior Career Executives. A job rotation program designed to expand the capacity of career employees while increasing interorganizational collaboration.
- The White House Advisory Group on Senior Executive Service Reform. A forum for addressing potential improvements to the recruitment, development and retention of civil servants.
- The Customer Service Award Program. A recognition to honor superior civil service.
Displaying care, compassion and commitment, Obama concluded: "I want you to wake up every day knowing that the president of the United States appreciates you for making that difference." In doing so, he gave a gift of transformational leadership to sustain the federal workforce through the trying New Year ahead.
Michael F. Belcher is a faculty member at the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Executive Institute. He teaches leadership and change management to federal executives in the Leadership for a Democratic Society Program.