How to get more great leaders into government

July 24, 2012

Geoff Smart is the chairman and CEO of ghSMART, a leadership firm for CEOs and investors. He is the author of leadership books and a social entrepreneur who sees his mission as creating, communicating and putting into practice useful ideas about leadership. His latest book is “Leadocracy: Hiring More Great Leaders (Like You) into Government.” Smart spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post's Federal Coach blog and is the director of the Partnership for Public Service's Center for Government Leadership.

What are the similarities and differences between leading in the public and private sectors?

I always thought that the conventional wisdom was true — business is business and government is government, and the two are very different. In talking with private-sector leaders who served in government, I learned there is more overlap than not. At my firm, we came up with the three As of leading: analyzing, allocating and aligning. These principles are important in both the private and public sectors. The biggest difference I noted between the two sectors is that you really need a spirit of generosity in the public sector in order to be successful. The kind of hyper-impatient business leader who’s disrespectful in tone and doesn’t have time to hear input won’t be successful in the public sector

In your opinion, why do some great private-sector leaders not consider serving in government?

It’s a lack of familiarity. Some leaders don’t have confidence that they understand government or they feel that their skill set would not apply in the public sector. In other cases, leaders may believe they will derail their career by pursuing a government leadership role. The final reason has to do with confidentiality concerns and the fear of a lack of privacy. When I asked leaders who served in government, they said these three obstacles, in reality, aren’t a big deal unless you’re running a presidential campaign. The reasons great leaders give for staying out of government end up being more myths than reality.

For example, in my book, I share the story of Joe Scarlett who was the legendary and successful CEO of Tractor Supply Company. During my interview I asked Joe, “Why didn’t you go into government?” In response, he said that “I just never really understood government. I was not familiar with it and so I never chose to get involved.” When I told him about the quarterly lunches that are held between business leaders and the governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, that allow business leaders to talk about what leadership in government is really like, Joe responded that he would have loved to have done something like that; and if so, he might have gotten into government.

What can the government do to attract more of the nation’s best private-sector leaders?

Demystify it. It often seems like there’s a big iron curtain between the private sector and the government. I discovered it’s actually more like a flimsy, drapery blind that you could pull to the side. The public sector should have more forum opportunities for private-sector leaders to simply hang out with senior members of the federal government.

How can private-sector leaders prepare for government service?

Their first stint in government should be something manageable. I feel bad for the private-sector leader who goes from knowing nothing about government to running for Congress. Take on a role, learn, decide whether or not working in government is appealing and then go for more of a high-stakes contest, either as an elected official or an appointed one.

What are the top qualities that make a great federal leader?

In hiring an appointee at the federal level, I would look for someone who had profound success in leading a large private-sector organization. I think that’s wonderful training and extraordinarily valuable experience.  When it comes to improving those qualities, I’d take advantage of development opportunities, go to seminars and find a mentor. I think mentoring is underrated. Figure out the most important quality that you need to work on, find someone who is an A-plus in that skill set and learn from them.

Who have been your leadership role models and what lessons did you learn?

Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, is a great role model around the lesson of defining a worthy mission. She emphasized the importance of committing to a mission and then using it to recruit and motivate team members. Another one is Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Mobile. His entrepreneurial spirit, courage to innovate and ability to build a culture are all really noteworthy. The last role model would be Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore. wasThe increase in the Singaporean standard of living under his leadership is impressive and inspiring.  

More from On Leadership:

Remembering Sally Ride’s leadership

Stephen Covey’s seven habits, personified

Great summer reads for government leaders

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