How to stay grounded as a federal leader

November 6, 2013

Leadership expert Bob Rosen is the author of the new book “Grounded: How Leaders Stay Rooted in an Uncertain World.” He is also the founder of Healthy Companies International, which provides leadership coaching to top executives. Rosen spoke with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

Q. You have outlined six dimensions that are vital to leadership. What are they?

(courtesy of Michael Stuart, Stuart Photography)
(courtesy of Michael Stuart, Stuart Photography)

A. Healthy leaders build teams and organizations that outperform. Who you are as a human being drives what you do, and who you are must be grounded. Our research has shown leaders need to be healthy in six roots: physical (how one lives), emotional (how one feels), intellectual (how one thinks), social (how one interacts with others), vocational (how one performs) and spiritual (how one sees the world). The world is constantly changing with the winds of uncertainty, complexity and globalization. The only thing that keeps leaders grounded is these six roots.

Q. How can leaders maintain focus on these attributes?

A. First, they must be self-aware. It’s the most important leadership quality. When we interviewed Tom Ryan, an Ohio congressman who wrote “A Mindful Nation,” he talked about the importance of mindfulness and not getting hijacked by the partisan politics on Capitol Hill. Second, one must be committed to self-development and to reinventing their leadership every day. Leaders also must think with an open mind in a world that is constantly changing and be willing to change their perspective on things very quickly.

Q. Are there specific techniques a leader should follow to reach the goals you described?

A. We have to take time for ourselves during the day to meditate, whether it’s a walk or just mindful meditation. Often, we are so rushed that we are unable to stop, take a breath and put a mirror up to ourselves. Secondly, make a commitment to learn something new about yourself every day. Conduct a 360 interview on yourself once a week and ask others what you need to sustain and to improve based upon your performance that week. The third is to ask more questions. Leaders tend to feel compelled to do a lot of talking, and a good question is always better than a profound declaration because it opens the door for people to jump in on the conversation.

Q. What can a leader do to help build healthy and productive teams?

A. Organizations are only as healthy as the people in them, particularly the leaders. People love working for leaders who are real, and people want to be in relationships with their leader. Leaders often mistake vulnerability for a weakness, and so they don’t share who they are as a person. When they do share, however, people respond very positively, because people want to be led by real people.

Q. How can senior federal leaders develop their staff when there isn't a lot of money to spend on training and development?

A. I’ve always felt that leaders have two jobs. One is to create an environment that brings out the best in people, and the other is to create other leaders. Simple things really matter in creating the environment. Saying thank you at the end of the day, apologizing when you’ve made a mistake, being honest about who you are, celebrating an accomplishment, asking constructive questions and, most importantly, being principled and holding your ground on your integrity. Protect your people from the dysfunction that goes on around them so they can focus on doing their job. None of these things cost money.

Q. Given the recent federal government shutdown, we’ve been hearing from a lot of leaders and employees about the need to re-recruit and re-engage the workforce. Do you have any advice on this issue?

A. Leaders cannot sweep employees’ frustrations under the rug. They have to give them the opportunity to vent their feelings and get the negative emotions out of their system. Then, the leader must bring back that higher purpose of what the work is, to remind people why they chose to work in the government to begin with.

Q. Are there any final thoughts you have about being a healthy and effective federal manager?

A. I think having a sense of global connectedness is important. A lot of agencies in the federal government are becoming more connected, so the work between the white spaces of the agencies is very important. On top of that, every government agency interacts with the world, so we have to become more global minded as a society, which we are making progress toward. In 1989, 3 percent of the country had a passport. In the year 2000, it was 17 percent and today it’s almost a third, so it’s important for leaders in government to see that they’re a part of a world much bigger than ever before.

Read also:

How to overcome workplace misunderstandings

Keeping federal workers engaged

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