Back to previous page


Post Most

How to be a successful federal leader

By ,

Justin Menkes is a leading expert in the field of evaluating C-suite executives and preparing individuals for the CEO position. He is the author of two books about executive leadership, Executive Intelligence and Better Under Pressure, published by Harvard Business Press. This interview was conducted by Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog.

Based on your experience, what traits are needed for a federal leader to be successful?

There are three attributes that I think best enable a leader to maximize the efforts of the 21st century workforce: realistic optimism, subservience to purpose and finding order in chaos.

What is realistic optimism?

Realistic optimism is especially important for a federal workforce. I think that if you’re going to lead people, you can’t sit there and tell them, “Everything’s going to be fine.”

When you look at poor performing or inept leaders, you find they are often incredibly optimistic. The difference is that they have blind optimism. So, if you say, “We will conquer all. The obstacles and adversities you’re discussing are not important for you to worry about because we’re going to win anyway,” you’ll lose them.

But those with realistic optimism are the ones that say, “These are the challenges that we face and these are some of our proposed solutions. None of us is sure what the final solutions to each problem will look like, but here are our contingency plans for trying to address them. And, I do believe that together, as a group, we’re going to meet our challenges. I have no doubt about it.” That is what it looks like to express realistic optimism.

What about subservience to purpose?

Today, a paycheck is not enough. Workers have to get out of bed every morning believing in what they’re doing. They have to believe that their presence and the activities that they perform on any given day will make positive, meaningful impacts on the world.

Southwest Airlines is a great example. Their people outperform competitors on every metric of productivity that exists. They believe that not only the rich should be able to fly in this country. So they’re going to get those airplanes off the ground on time and as inexpensively as possible, because they believe that that’s an important mission for America. This sense of purpose has lasted since Herb Kelleher founded the airline 35 years ago.

Explain bringing order to chaos.

Finding order in chaos is critical. Leaders cannot throw up their hands and give up. In many ways, today’s workforce has fallen behind in this area. It’s not being trained to find joy in the pressure-filled situations that we face. In the world and the economy today, there is more unfamiliar than familiar. So, you’ve got to get comfortable with it.

The best example of this is A.G. Lafley at Proctor and Gamble. Before he retired, he was in Brazil watching housewives do their laundry in the bayous. When I asked him why, he said that his company had introduced a laundry detergent that should have been hugely popular among this particular Brazilian population. The detergent required no rinse cycle for clothes to be clean, [but] nobody wanted to buy it. Ultimately, what he found out was that the detergent didn’t make suds. As soon as they added suds, the women felt like the product was working. They started using the detergent and the product became a huge hit.

How can current senior federal leaders cultivate these three attributes in their emerging executives?

There are some wonderful things they can do. One of the great teachers of realist optimism is David Novak at Yum Brands. One of the things he’s done is use catch phrases. He found that when people are not taking responsibility or accountability for their actions, being realistic but optimistic is achievable.

He introduced this phrase called ‘victimitis.’ So whenever people would say, “Oh, it’s not my fault,” or attempt to defend their bad actions, all of their colleagues would say, “Victimitis, victimitis!”

Part of what he did was about building a culture and giving people tools they can effectively use — and in some places, playfully use. We need to remind ourselves that our destinies are in some ways beyond our control, but that our day-to-day, work-to-work, minute-to-minute experiences are still very much under our control.

As a leader, if you’re sitting there having to block Internet sites on your employees’ computers, you’ve already lost the battle. You have to have them be interested and motivated to do their work without you looking over their shoulders.

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Read More:

The top 10 places to work in federal government

Adm. Thad Allen on inspiring future leaders

We don’t reward top military performers, and it’s costing us

© The Washington Post Company