The leaders who thrive in government are those who embrace complexity, and who flourish while others get frustrated.
Landing a person on the moon is less complex than leading in government.
That’s because engineers and scientists have the irrefutable laws of physics and chemistry that set hard boundaries. In government there are ill-defined boundaries as policy makers and advisers find themselves surrounded by diverse stakeholder interests and at the vagaries of human preference. Preferences which change as the winds change.
The kind of leaders that thrive in government are those that embrace complexity. They flourish while others get frustrated.
Government leaders who embrace complexity show three familiar traits. They do the hard-smart work, have advanced influencing skills and know how to build and hold onto trust.
In government the best example of hard-smart work is standing in the shoes of all key stakeholders to understand them almost as well as they understand themselves.
The health sector is a perfect case. A savvy bureaucrat appreciates the scale of the challenge, the disproportionate resources available and the emotion surrounding the operating environment. They will ensure they are acutely aware of the hot buttons for ministers and of the most powerful stakeholder groups. This will unveil the absolute no-go areas while uncovering opportunities to influence.
Equally they will have an internal lens to understand their organisation’s ability to implement. This allows them to know what not to promise and to be prepared when inevitable problems raise their ugly heads.
Advanced influencing skills
Unfortunately, often due to expediency, many leaders use their authority to get things done. They get a short-term win, but influencing is both a short and long-term game. The strongest leaders play the long game and focus on more subtle methods of persuasion. Effective leaders in government know how to combine the art of storytelling with visual aids to make lasting impressions on those they wish to influence.
Storytelling can provide the listener with everything they need to take on a leader’s advice. It can provide the who, the why, the what and the how.
Keeping with the health sector as a case in point, patient stories are used to convey messages to boards, to project teams, to funders and potential donors. The patients become the who, their challenges are often the why, the circumstances they encounter are the what and the solution implemented or being considered is the how.
The use of visual aids is painting a picture that can often capture a complex meaning in a snapshot and stir emotion in a person.
Building and holding trust
We initially learned about trust in the playground. We learned not to trust those who told on us or who fooled us.
These basic concepts were forgotten in late 2017 when ATO staff were encouraged to report others who were abusing the flexi-time system or who were reading the paper and having breakfast “on company time”.
While the motivation behind the directive may have been in keeping with ATO values, in particular its attitude to fraud, its actual impact was the deterioration of trust in the workplace. From the ivory tower down.
Government leaders who build and hold onto trust act with integrity and authenticity. They do not change their views to suit their current needs. At the same time, a leader who is willing to change their view for legitimate reasons, and who is willing to explain the change, enhances the trust others feel towards them. They are showing they are not unreasonable and will not let ego stand in the way.
Finally, there is the ability to give bad news. Trust can be undone instantly if bad news is not delivered carefully. The strongest leaders know how to tell the hard truths. They know how to break the news gently and with a positive spin.
Bryan Whitefield is a leadership and management consultant, who has advised all levels of government. He is the author of Winning Conversations: How to turn red tape into blue ribbon.