What makes a great federal leader?

January 3, 2013

E. Allan Lind is the James L. Vincent Distinguished Professor of Leadership at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Lind’s research centers on leadership and global management issues. He spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog and is the vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

What are the top attributes of great federal leaders and how can federal leaders develop these qualities?

Fundamentally, leadership involves giving people a sense of direction. It involves developing good relationships with people by showing concern and respect. It also involves contextual leadership — the idea that if you understand the context, then you know how things work and you can help your people understand their place. You need to know how your part of government works and convey that to your people. Being an effective leader involves bringing a set of skills to the table and knowing when to use them. Like any skills, you have to practice them.

Could you identify one of these essential leadership skills?

My colleagues and I recommend reflective listening, which is listening to what somebody says and then paraphrasing back to them to check understanding. I’ve found that whenever you see someone who seems worried by something, take just a second and ask them about what’s going on. Hear what’s on their mind and then paraphrase it back to them. This action isn’t a big, formal dinner-with-the-boss thing, but just a minute or two of connection that builds leadership potential.

You and your colleague, Professor Sim Sitkin, conceived the Six Domains Leadership Pyramid . Could you tell me what this is about?

The first domain is personal leadership, which is demonstrating vision, competency, authenticity and dedication — in essence, showing people why they should follow you. The second domain is relational leadership. You must understand your people’s interests and their competencies, show concern for their well-being, and show fairness by behaving in an unbiased way. The third category is the idea of contextual leadership. This domain is all about how the leader conveys the essence of the organization to the people he or she is leading. These three domains form the base of a pyramid. If you adhere to these three domains, you build up a stock of leadership capital. Once you got this stock of leadership, then you can exercise inspirational leadership, which is getting people excited about the mission and getting them to be innovative and optimistic about the task. The final two domains are supportive leadership, which involves providing resources and protection for your people, and responsible leadership, a domain that addresses the ethical and balance responsibilities of a leader.

How would you advise new political appointees to quickly establish their leadership credentials?

We identified three factors that are especially important for political appointees, because typically political appointees come from outside the organization. First, learn from people about their expert knowledge.  Go to the various components of the department or agency and say, “Make me smart about your expertise.”  Then do reflective listening.  A second leadership skill is gaining trust by showing shared values.  The people who have been in the organization forever have a common set of values. Remember, you’re coming in from the outside. How will you show that you share the same values? Finally, show some “self-sacrifice” for the common good. Political appointees are often there because they have connections, clout and access. But would you risk your reputation for the agency? It’s not even really critical that you succeed. The important thing is that the employees see you’re spending some of your resources for them.

Who are your leadership role models?

One of my role models is Martin Luther King Jr.  I admire Dr. King and I use his “I Have a Dream” speech often in class because he had this capacity to reach out to people with different values, and to advance his vision in terms of their values. So when we look at that speech and many of his other speeches and actions, he was a remarkably good leader at saying, “Here’s what I think we should do, and I think you should do it because you hold these values that bring us to it.” The end of the “I Have a Dream” speech is all about Dr. King saying, “We need equality and we need it because we’re Americans, or we need it because we’re Christians, or we need it because we’re the great generation, we saved the world, and now we have to bring that home.” And by making that proposition over and over again, he forged a really remarkable leadership dynamic.

New Year’s resolutions for federal workers

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