Guest Post: Leading Across Boundaries in an Era of Complex Challenges

From budget reductions to a struggling economy, disasters to pandemics, the seemingly intractable challenges facing government leaders extend far beyond the ability of any one agency or leader to respond. These are complex, often non-routine, challenges that are increasingly cross-cutting, interagency in nature, and go to the core of effective governance and leadership – testing the very form, structure, and capacity required to meet them head-on. Many are difficult to anticipate and in most manifestations, they do not follow orderly and linear processes.

As Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, observes, “There was a time when leaders shared a sense that the problems they faced could be managed through the application of well-known rules and linear logic. Those days are gone. Most of today’s important problems have a significant wicked component, making progress impossible if we persist in applying inappropriate methods and tools to them.”

There are different types of leadership approaches, from transactional to transformative and beyond. A survey of leadership experts and government leaders I have interviewed on The IBM Center for The Business of Government’s radio program makes one thing clear—there is no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership.

What does seem evident is the importance of context when honing one’s leadership approach. It becomes apparent that effective leaders must possess and exercise a certain level of contextual intelligence. As Professor Joseph Nye stresses in Leadership, Power and Contextual Intelligence, “Understanding context is crucial for effective leadership. Some situations may call for autocratic decisions and some require the exact opposite. There is an infinite variety of contexts in which leaders have to operate, but it is particularly important for leaders to understand culture, distribution of resources, followers’ needs and demands, time urgency, and information flows.”

Given today’s context a specific kind of leadership approach seems to be most effective. It is an approach that recognizes the importance of:

• reaching across agencies,
• connecting networks of critical organizational and individual actors,
• mobilizing the whole of government’s capabilities, and
• achieving a result greater than the sum of the agencies involved

Some have come to call this collaborative or shared leadership. I highlight examples of collaborative leadership in action in the IBM Center special report, Six Trends Driving Change in Government. Whether leading the Human Genome Project, establishing the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), or ensuring the proper implementation of the $840 billion Recovery Act, we draw eight lessons from the leaders profiled in the report:

1. Leaders need to act quickly with strategic intent
2. Attention from the top is paramount
3. Collaboration maximizes speed of execution
4. Use different leadership styles when necessary
5. Define and focus on your goals and objectives
6. Articulate a strategy for moving forward
7. Engage employees and put customers first
8. Seize the moment

Though these lessons are drawn from the experience of public sector leaders, they have applicability to leaders across all sectors. Leaders are responsible for envisioning, shaping, and safeguarding the future, creating clarity amidst uncertainty. This is no small feat and it is made increasingly difficult in the 21st century, where rapid, unforeseen change seems to be the only constant.

b502cfad70cf3442f441aa6115a31102This post was written by: Michael J. Keegan: Host, The Business of Government Hour & Editor, The Business of Government magazine


Friday Fast Tip: Ask Questions

“Why is that?”

“What does that mean?”

“Is that everything we can do?”

Have you ever been in a meeting and thought one of the questions above? Don’t keep your questions to yourself, ask them. Either people have already thought through these questions and there is an answer waiting or they haven’t and it needs to be discussed. So don’t leave a meeting with questions lingering; dig deeper, and you’ll be able to accomplish that much more.

What to Do When Your Resolution Fails

A new year is a great time to take a fresh perspective and renew your strategies and goals – both personally and professionally. However, often these “resolutions” fail, bringing us at best back to where we started or at worst feeling demotivated and unsuccessful. So what do you do to avoid taking two steps back when your resolution fails?

Rethink resolutions: We tend to make grand resolutions that require us to do things out of character or extend a great effort. These can not only be daunting, but are more prone to challenges and failure. If you find that your grand plan has failed, it’s time to rethink it.

Instead, set realistic goals. Don’t misinterpret this as lowering your standards, but instead as creating a path to achieving your ultimate goals. You have to walk before you can run, right? So take your overall goal and break it into smaller steps. What do you need to do to get there? What are key milestones along the way? How will you achieve those milestones? Then focus on the milestones instead of the finish line.

Habits weren’t built in a day: Much like Rome, habits take time. I recently changed my computer password and I can’t tell you how many times I started typing the old password automatically before my brain truly internalized the new one. Once it’s engrained though, it’s automatic, but as Jason Selk pointed out in Forbes, getting there takes work. And habits aren’t just something we do to get healthy. Whether it’s networking with more colleagues, implementing a new system, or dedicating 20 minutes a day to creative thinking, establishing habits is essential to achieving professional goals.

So, in order to achieve goals – we can’t just say, we must do. We must do, and do, and do again, until we’ve created habits. We must push through even when our motivation waivers, but if we can build and sustain habits, we can make meaningful, lasting changes.

Don’t go it alone: The trick is recognizing that even seemingly small changes can be difficult to make. Our minds only have so much capacity for sustained effort and change. Make it easier for yourself to succeed by identifying techniques and cues to help stay on track, such as scheduling specific time to review emails or setting alarms when it’s time to head home. For organizational goals, seek help from colleagues and experts. Get their input on the best strategy; then take digestible pieces of the overall goal and divide and conquer.

We’ve all said it, “This year is going to be the year that I…” Well, unfortunately willpower alone isn’t enough to make you successful. In fact, “the brain has a limited capacity for self-regulation, so exerting willpower in one area often leads to backsliding in others,” write neuroscience authors Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang. Alternatively, focus on breaking things down into feasible pieces, creating habits that support your goals, and getting support from your colleagues and technology. If your New Year’s resolution fails, don’t give up; there are 364 other days to make realistic resolutions that will work.

What I’m Reading Now: What’s Love Got to Do With It?

People who worked in a culture where they felt free to express affection, tenderness, caring, and compassion for one another were more satisfied with their jobs, committed to the organization, and accountable for their performance.

  • Authors: Sigal Barsade and Olivia (Mandy) O’Neill
  • Title: Employees Who Feel Love Perform Better
  • Source: Harvard Business Review