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Is public sector leadership different from other leadership?


Russ was a high-ranking officer in the U.S. Navy and subsequently held leadership positions in the business world. So I sat up and noticed when he asked me a very good question. How does public leadership differ from leadership in the military or private sector? While I’ve long taught that there is much about leadership that is the same, wherever exercised, Russ’ question prompted a two-part answer and, in turn, some reflections.


First, in the military, leadership is, by design, exercised from the top down and so too, largely speaking, in corporate boardrooms and corner offices. Questions and challenges get passed up the chain of command, orders are passed down.


While many in elected office may wish (and sometimes think) that it is their job to lead and ours to follow without questioning, we don’t usually elect our leaders with “command and control” in mind. Democracy is based on the idea of dialog between the governed and those who govern. While there is certainly conversation in the military and in corporate offices, at the end of the day, the power rests at the top. In democracy, as our founders affirmed, power rests in us, to be exercised in our name and in keeping with our wishes.


So while neither of the following two statements is absolutely true, it is largely true that a) command and control” is the way of leadership in the military and private sector, with power being the main coin of the realm, while b) for those of us seeking to exercise public leadership in the public square, there is power-sharing between authorizers and those we authorize. We can hope for power and some in positions of authority (the President, the Speaker of the House) have some, overall influence is the primary coin of the realm.


Second, in the military and private sector, there is one or, at most, a few authorizers, empowering the people put in “leadership” positions. In the military, the chain of command is articulated and clear, the President is Commander in Chief, there are the secretaries of the various military branches and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In business, the board, the CEO, and his/her senior leadership team are the authorities. In most cases, you can attach names to the authorizers and they are few in number.


Elected officials, on the other hand, report to many independent and at times competing authorizers. Take State Representatives or Senators, the examples I know best. Our constituents elect – and can un-elect – us. They are clearly authorizers of the first order, there are tens if not hundreds of thousands of them, and rarely, if ever, do they speak with one voice. Once elected, a great deal of power is concentrated in a person in a position of authority or power, the Senate President or Speaker of the House, so our efficacy, the fate of our priority legislation, and the ability to get things done for those we represent requires respecting and honoring that power, and those who wield it. Then there are the advocacy groups whose values we share and, often, who helped get us elected. Surely they are our authorizers as well. And one more: we, or at least most of us, run for office because of a set of values and/or causes we wish to advance. It would be irresponsible, if not unethical, to not do whatever was necessary to honor why we’re in office in the first place. But what if there are competing priorities across our authorizers? We are authorized in a multiple ways and need to take a lot of authorizers into account. In the public square, the list of authorizers is long and the chain of command complicated and anything but linear. And those who serve must rely more on the power of influence than the influence of power.


Russ then asked about the distinction between “leadership” and “authority?” That question requires a weeklong seminar and I offered but a few headlines.


For one, we tend to use the two terms interchangeably, although there’s a world of difference. The Speaker of the House and the Senate President and their teams are considered the legislative leadership. They may or may not be exercising leadership, but they surely have authority status.


Authority is a contract for services. We authorize, cede power to, someone in exchange for direction, protection and order. As we’re seeing across the globe, the more uncertain the times, the more likely we, the people, are to turn to an authority figure, even an authoritarian figure, who promises a path through the wilderness, relief from disruption, answers.


Leadership occurs not when those in authority offer answers, but when essential questions are kept on – and key people kept at – the table long enough for shared answers to emerge. It is the art of mobilizing people to confront tough, intractable problems, overcome differences, and move beyond the natural resistance to change. It demands entering unknown territory and requires experimentation and improvisation. It is risky and anything but orderly. And it is as rare as it is essential to address the big existential questions that are all about us. We’re more likely to elect someone who offers the promise of smooth sailing in familiar waters rather than an invitation to explore new territory, however necessary that exploration might be. We elect people to authority positions and, for all the talk of change, Mark Twain captured a reality of public sector leadership, speaking for most of us when he offered “I’m all for progress. It’s change I can’t stand.”


Russ was intrigued.


Russ and I ended our conversation with yet another question. Can leadership be taught or do some individuals just have that magical mix of qualities, personality and skills to inspire and engage others? While there is much debate about whether or not leadership can be taught, as an observer, practitioner and, most recently, leadership educator, I have not the slightest doubt that, under the right circumstances, it can be learned. In a democracy, we have a shared interest in fostering that learning.


What do you think?


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