Kelman: Focus on the mission

To be a great federal leader, you have to be obsessed with your agency’s mission

About 70 colonels, GS-15 federal employees and a smattering of other participants come to Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government three times a year for a monthlong program called Senior Executive Fellows. Each summer, another group of 70 — about half of them members of the Senior Executive Service and the other half senior government officials from outside the UnitedStates — comes for three weeks for another program called Senior Managers in Government.

chart I generally teach those groups six classes — three about using performance measurement in government and three about organizational design. The classes explore relying on rules versus giving frontline employees more discretion and working in noninteroperable organizations versus working on cross-functional teams. We also discuss the role of strong organizational cultures.

A statement by a recent class member — a GS-15 employee at the Forest Service — made a big impression on me. Referring to the employees at the agency whose job is to make sure managers with program responsibilities don’t run afoul of organizational rules, the manager said, “Their job is to make sure I don’t go to jail, and my job is to keep them busy.”

The manager made that comment during a discussion about organizational goals and boundary systems. Ethical constraints limit what people in an organization are allowed to do to achieve their goals. Rules are good at establishing boundaries for what is not permissible, but if all you do is worry about the rules, often you won’t do a good job of meeting your organizational goals.

The manager’s remarks reflected a strong commitment to achieving the agency’s mission. Yes, managers should stay out of jail and respect the boundaries. But a good manager should always be obsessed with accomplishing the mission.

What I found so remarkable about that manager’s statement is that federal employees often have too few incentives these days to be obsessed with achieving something important. Instead, the government encourages managers to cover their heads to protect themselves from flying shrapnel, be obsessed only with constraints and be nonchalant about goals.

That is a bad situation because it means that agencies won’t do as good a job as they should to reach the important goals we set for them. To be a manager who worries only about constraints and not about goals is like being a journalist who never lied or revealed a source, and who never uncovered an interesting story.

Despite the flying shrapnel, the Forest Service manager remained committed to achieving the mission. That manager and my executive education students in general amaze me. Based on many class discussions over the years, those managers remain remarkably committed to achieving important goals. Many of them make it clear that this, in their view, is what being a leader is about.

I’d like to believe that their attitude is what got them promoted to their current level. I wonder how they persist, and I admire them, as we all should.

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at

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