Blog: Leadership of Today

August 5, 2009
By H. Mosher

We try to learn about leadership from great leaders of the past, says Christopher Dorobek in this month's Incoming column, Trite But True: It All Comes Down to Leadership:

Many remarkable books have been written about leaders. Among the classics are Warren Bennis' On Becoming a Leader or John Maxwell's The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You. There are books about President Lincoln's skills; one is Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times by Donald T. Phillips. Another book looks at the leadership skills of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill: Churchill on Leadership: Executive Success in the Face of Adversity by Steven F. Hayward. In the end, we understand that leadership is so important that we even try to look back at history to find lessons learned from great leaders in the past.

We all have been to conferences where speakers talk about the problems facing government today. Inevitably, the solution involves leadership. Yet even with all the books and all the talk about the importance of leadership, there seems to be an inverse relationship between how often we talk about leadership and how much we really understand it.

He continues by noting that leadership of today needs to be less reflective to really address today's pressing leadership issues. Among his assertions: People confuse leadership with management, and leaders must understand emerging principles of leadership. Moving past the obstacles and understanding these key 21st century principles, which include "agility, innovation and the ability to enable people to think independently," requires a different kind of wisdom: that of today's leaders. He gives an example from the Environmental Protection Agency:

One of my favorite stories of real leadership comes from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Jeremy Ames, a young man in his 20s, is a front-line federal employee in the EPA's Indoor Environments Division. Last year he had the task of creating a public service announcement to educate people about the dangers of radon. Rather then just contracting it out, Ames had the wonderful idea of creating a contest that would allow people to submit their videos on YouTube, and then the EPA would award a prize to the winning videos. Ames even researched government regulations to determine that the government could award prize money. The results of this contest were remarkable. Several of the videos are just stunning, and you can view them at http://bit.ly/radon. ... [The contest's] success spoke volumes about their ability to infuse the organization with an innovative culture-to empower people to try new things. It was seeping throughout the organization, and people had adopted ideas as their own. Peacock and O'Neill had managed to start a transformation of the EPA-an organization that was already one of the government's most far-sighted agencies.

This leads us to this month's question: Where have you seen good leadership recently? We welcome your stories, anecdotes, links and feedback on other examples of where government agencies have addressed these issues of agility, innovation and encouragement of independent or creative efforts.

Share Your Thoughts:

Christopher J. Dorobek's "Incoming" column focused on good leadership. I once was as misguided as Dorobek, but no more. I hope it's not too late to affect his thinking-and yours as well.

Dorobek notes that a recent search for books about leadership yielded almost 350,000 hits, and he mentions some of the classic works on leadership. I've read most of these, and I aspired to be-and be seen as-a leader: agile and innovative, enabling people to think independently. Finally, Dorobek notes that "... too often we confuse leadership with management." Other than this sentence, management, manager and managing are mentioned only twice in his column. That doesn't strike me as fair or balanced.

As government programs and agencies today have become more complex, the ability to make them work has diminished. As we review the government landscape today, it is littered with failures such as FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina and the Food and Drug Administration's inability to stop dangerous foods from reaching dining tables. Are these failures of leadership? There might be an element of that, but more likely they are failures of management; they are failures to execute.

There are many reasons for this. While the federal acquisition work force remains largely flat-increasing about 3 percent since fiscal year 1999-federal contracting dollars have more than doubled. Because of past administrations' efforts to downsize the federal work force, the government has come to rely on the private sector.

Never before have we so badly needed new and big ideas on government management, and never before have we needed strong managers and leaders in government. But, as Professor Donald Kehl at the University of Maryland has said, "Never before have we been so bereft on both."

Our need today is not for more agile, innovative, enabling leaders. It's not for transformative leadership. It's not for rock stars or heavy hitters or big thinkers. The future is about managing risks and expenses. It's about delivering and executing. It's about solid management, administration and execution.

For at least the last 30-plus years, we've been led and over- and under-managed. What we need today is more and better management. We need articles like "Trite but True: It all comes down to management."

Editor's note: Alan P. Balutis (abalutis@cisco.com) is the director and distinguished fellow for Cisco Business Solutions Group. Balutis responded in greater depth to Dorobek's column; that response will appear in the October 2009 issue of SIGNAL Magazine.

Share Your Thoughts: