By Steve Kelman

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Performance measures and risk: What should leaders stand for?

In this week’s management and leadership classes for Kennedy School master’s students, we discussed a case about then-newly elected Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony Williams trying to use performance measures as a key part of his approach to turning around city government. The case study was the capstone of a three-class mini-unit introducing students to using performance measurement in managing public and non-profit organizations.

I started the class, though, with a question as much about Tony Williams as about performance measurement. I cited the observation of my colleague and friend Elaine Kamarck, who likes using performance measures but believes no politician will ever commit him- or herself to measures if there is any chance of falling short. “If you commit yourself to a measure and you don’t meet it,” Kamarck argues, “you are simply providing your political enemies with the ammunition to shoot you with.”

There are exceptions of politicians who have indeed committed themselves to challenging performance goals -- not only Williams himself but Tony Blair, as Labour Prime Minister in the U.K., and, for that matter, the Obama administration with the “high-priority goals” for each agency. Also think about John Kennedy’s goal of getting a person to the moon and back within a decade!

But the question remains: Why would a politician (or an agency leader for that matter) take the risk?

So I started off by asking the class: “If you were Tony Williams and you had just done this, would you be scared?” And I followed this up with the question, “If you were in his position, do you think you would have done it?”

Most students – realistically in my view – said they would have been scared. Some cited specific mitigating circumstances for Williams that made the decision less hard – the fact that his oversight committees in Congress wanted him to commit to measures; the fact that the city was down so low that voters might be tolerant as long as movement was in the right direction; and his own personality, which was numbers-oriented and “nerdy.”

But some students raised larger issues as well. “No matter what a politician does, they are going to get criticized. So you might as well do the right thing,” said one. Another noted that Williams had gone into public service to improve people’s lives, so he wouldn’t have been true to himself if he hadn’t pursued the course he did.

I have asked senior government executives when I teach this case how many of them had at least once in their careers voluntarily accepted a goal that they thought there was a significant chance they wouldn’t meet. Almost always 80 to 90 percent of a class of senior federal managers says they have. When I ask them to describe the circumstances and explain why they did it, almost all the answers fall into two categories: stretching for a hard-to-reach goal is exhilarating and invigorating, and they believe in their organization’s mission and want to push it forward.

Williams himself – who is now an adjunct lecturer at the Kennedy School – actually attended both classes. Commenting on the students’ comments, he said that he was very scared, that he hoped voters would realize the city had nowhere to go but up and that this was simply what he was elected to do – to improve life in the city.

At the end of the discussion, I said to the students: “If you’re not willing to do this, why seek to become a leader in the first place? If it’s not just for power or position, it has to be for serving the people your organization is supposed to serve.”

Posted on Sep 22, 2010 at 12:08 PM


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