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

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4 thoughts on “Guest Post: Leading Across Boundaries in an Era of Complex Challenges

  1. Pingback: Follow up on Eight Lessons from Leaders Part 1 | Monday Musings: Work, Life and Leadership

  2. Pingback: Follow up on Eight Lessons from Leaders Part 2 | Monday Musings: Work, Life and Leadership

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