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On Leadership
By Edward Arnold, LDS 269

“It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, … [and] take the front line when there is danger.” — Nelson Mandela

As Federal executives, we expect to be held responsible and accountable for successful performance of our organization’s stated missions and long-standing programs. But how do we respond to changes in expected delivery—particularly those directed by higher-level officials or emerging public expectations? Certainly, we rarely have the authority to change laws or the time to change Federal regulations or initiate new programs. So, what do we do?

It is a leader’s role to help stimulate individuals’ desire to take action. Within the context of a Federal agency, the stimulus should be legal, supportive of the agency’s mission, and conformant with the determined vision for and the expected delivery by the organization.  

How, then, does a leader stimulate individuals to support the vision?  

Ultimately, people do things for one reason: because they want to.

While it is possible for a leader to direct an employee to take specific actions, doing so disengages the employee from any responsibility for the action. Additionally, such a directive approach is based on an implicit threat that failure to follow direction will elicit punitive actions targeted at the employee. Such an implied threat threatens the employees’ livelihood, which threatens their health and safety, and thus ultimately becomes a demotivating leadership technique in the long run. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1954) indicates that enabling employee self-actualization may be a more sustainable form of leadership by which to stimulate action to support the determined organizational vision. 

In his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, Edward O. Wilson suggests that only by putting ideas together in new ways can we generate the next forward leaps in human experience.1  

In fact, William Bridges2 indicates that a way leaders might facilitate acceptance of change, facilitate engagement in supporting the change, and potentially accelerate the actual implementation of the change might be to allow the individuals who may be most affected by the change to develop the detailed implementation plans. Doing so allows the employees to better understand the change’s potential effect on their livelihood and either change their own expectations or integrate more incentives into the change effort. Doing so also creates the conditions for leap-ahead consilience. 

The approach recommended by Bridges is seminal to the leadership methods espoused by Peter Senge3 as the path toward a learning organization.  

In the words of the Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, and they will say: we did it ourselves.

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” —Peter Drucker

“If you want to travel fast … travel alone. If you want to travel far … travel together.” —Proverb of the Massai people of East Africa

  1See Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998).
  2See William Bridges, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change (3rd edition, 2009).
  3See Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline (2nd edition, 2006).

Author Bio
Edward Arnold has over 30 years of Federal Government experience, over half of which have been as a Federal executive. During his tenure he has successfully led and managed complex organizations, programs, and projects including strategic visioning and planning; organizational design, budget development, and execution; human resources management, succession, and workforce planning; major strategic acquisitions and contracts; facilities design and build-out; and internal controls. He is currently a senior IT specialist with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

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