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Leadership Thought #447 – What Makes A Successful Public Leader

August 26, 2013

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Leadership is especially hard when you are a public leader. Governing requires special talents.

We are amid an active and important election season in my local area.  Many critical positions are up for grabs, which is clearly illustrated by the substantial number of individuals who have thrown their hats in the ring.  I am sure there are varying motivations by the candidates as to why they are running.  Personally, I try to give them all the benefit of the doubt that their primary motivation is to make a positive difference.  I don’t expect to agree with every candidate, but I do expect them to have the courage of their convictions.  Having studied leadership and politics for quite a long time now, the following characteristics emerge as indicative of whether someone will be an effective public leader:

  1. They must like people and enjoy the public aspect of their role.  Politics by its very nature involves regular human interaction and if you aren’t a “people person” it makes the position much harder than it needs to be.  Leaders who isolate themselves tend not to last very long.
  2. They must embrace rather than resist the scrutiny of the press.  If you genuinely believe in what you are doing, then leveraging the natural interest of the media is a great way to communicate and clarify your positions/actions.
  3. They must be willing to compromise to get things done rather than dig their heels in on every single issue.  Of course, every leader has issues they feel strongly about but not everything should be a political battle.
  4. They need to be more interested in getting the right outcomes than being proven right. No one likes an individual who always acts like the smartest person in the room.  Arrogance only ever turns people off.
  5. They need to focus on their current role rather than constantly jockeying for the next position.  There is nothing more distasteful than naked ambition run amok.
  6. They need to do their homework to support their positions not just have strong ideological positions set in stone.  The only constant in life is change and all leaders need to be flexible and thoughtful in their thinking.
  7. They need to leverage the skills/talents of others who have more experience/knowledge about a particular issue than they do.  Political leaders need to orchestrate positive outcomes not author ego driven solutions.
  8. They need to be optimists who believe the future can be as good if not better than the present.  Pessimistic and reactionary thinking only ever creates negative energy and has no place in public leadership.
  9. They need to have a positive focused vision for the future and have clarity as to how they will leverage their role and rally others to make it happen.  If a leader doesn’t know where he/she is going, then any road can take them there.
  10. They need to be able to manage both big and small issues.  A leader’s success is directly correlated to the number of major priorities he/she decides to tackle.  Day-to-day tactical issues will always compete for his/her attention.  How someone manages their discretionary leadership time will dictate what eventually gets done,

I am blessed to live in a vibrant and thriving community.  Many dedicated private citizens have served in public roles to help make it this way.  Our political system encourages the active participation of individual citizens to serve the public good.   At times I am sure this can be a thankless position because everyone has an opinion of what you should be doing, but few will ever subject themselves to the scrutiny of a political campaign and assume the responsibilities of public leadership.  I am grateful to all the candidates running this year regardless of their party affiliation. I just hope the electorate takes the time to understand who it is they are electing. We must ever mindful of who we select as our public leaders at all levels of government.