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Federal Coach: What it takes to be an innovative government leader

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

There is a widespread misconception that innovation does not and cannot exist in government.

I often hear complaints from federal employees about bottlenecks, fear of risk-taking and the inability of some federal leaders to adapt to changing circumstances and new ways of thinking.

But I also know many highly committed and resilient public servants who break down barriers and alter the status quo every day to achieve positive outcomes for the American people.

They do so despite facing obstacles not experienced in the private sector, including short-term political leadership; unusual demands imposed by Congress; greater difficulties hiring and firing employees; cumbersome procurement rules; and complications reallocating or getting new resources.

My organization, the Partnership for Public Service, published a study last week in cooperation with the Hay Group, that looked at the characteristics of innovative federal leaders to determine what they have in common and what drives them to deliver results when others have stalled in frustration.

While these leaders came from varied backgrounds and faced many different kinds of challenges, we identified a series of attributes--values, motivations and behaviors--that allow them to overcome hurdles, shape and articulate a vision, and create a path and environment for accomplishing it.

Here are some of the basic characteristics of innovative government leaders that we have identified and that you can use to judge how you measure up as a federal manager. Our research has found that while some of these attributes may come naturally to people, most federal leaders can learn, adapt and change.

 The leaders best equipped to steer our nation tend to have some or all of the following qualities:

  •  They are resilient. They aren’t seriously impeded by structural, procedural, cultural or political barriers. And when they do encounter resistance, they don’t give up.
  •  They are visionary, self-aware and constantly broadening their perspective.
  •  They understand and know how to navigate through and around their organization’s structure, culture and politics. They also understand and respect the roles, boundaries and agendas of other governmental organizations.
  •  They purposefully leverage networks and relationships, and use complex influencing skills to collaborate across organizational boundaries.
  •  They build strong, diverse teams through their leadership, creating a sense of purpose, fostering a climate that facilitates innovation and developing others as an essential part of their job.

 Now, ask yourself--candidly--how are you living up to those standards? Where are your strengths? Where do you need to improve? If you’re interested in learning more about our research, please visit ourpublicservice.org.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Mar 14, 2011 at 12:12 PM

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