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Trite But True: It All Comes Down to Leadership

August 17, 2009
By Christopher J. Dorobek

 
Good leadership is transformational and is different from management.

What does it mean to be a leader?

At our core, we innately understand that leadership matters. I recently searched the book catalog on Amazon.com for books about leadership, and it probably will not surprise anyone that my search came up with 348,433 hits. So on one level, we understand it—leadership is important.

Many remarkable books have been written about leaders. Among the classics are Warren Bennis On Becoming a Leader or John Maxwells The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You. There are books about President Lincolns 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.

Leadership these days is particularly challenging. And, too often we confuse leadership with management. They are related, but they are very different. It seems that three attributes are particularly important for leadership in the 21st century: agility, innovation and the ability to enable people to think independently.

For agility, todays leaders need to be able to look ahead and adjust to rapidly changing conditions. That agility comes in part from having a strategic focus that sets a clear path where the organization is headed.

For innovation, leaders provide their organizations with the authority to innovate. They trust their people, and they empower them to push the organization in ways that might even feel uncomfortable. And they protect them from the very real potential of failure.

Encouraging independence can be difficult, but leaders today need to encourage differences. One of the challenges with many in the Web 2.0 generation is the potential of groupthink on a large scale. Leaders need to encourage people who think in different ways—as well as people who are brave enough to say something that nobody else will say.

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.

That project is notable in and of itself, but the entire project says something about the leadership at EPA. I wanted to know more about this program, so I reached out to the EPA chief information officer at the time, Molly O’Neill, and the then-deputy administrator, Marcus Peacock, but neither of them knew about the initiative. And frankly, both were embarrassed that it flew under their radar. However, I was enthused. To me, its 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.

In the end, leadership is not tied to a title, even in government. And leadership is not about what the organization does while its head is carefully managing it. When all is said and done, real leadership depends on what an organization does when its manager is not there. Real leadership can be transformational. Real leadership can infuse an organization with lasting change.

This is an artful balance in government—innovation versus bureaucracy. Sometimes government workers can feel hog-tied by the rules. Leaders can help free them from those ties, encourage them to think about the world of the possible and press everyone to improve.

To me, the Ames case demonstrates that good leadership is infectious. It spreads through an organization in ways one does not even know or understand. All of us can make a difference and can be leaders within our organization. Regardless of position, a single person can make a difference.

Christopher J. Dorobek is the co-anchor of The Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris on Federal News Radio 1500 AM.