A new CCL study offers insight into the leadership
development needs of government leaders and offers some on-the job
solutions to help enhance the skills of current leaders and create
leaders for tomorrow.
Do you put your staff at ease or do you push them a bit, leading
them to greatness? According to a new survey from the Center for
Creative Leadership (CCL), if youre a public manager, keeping your
diverse team cool under pressure may be your greatest strength. But
knowing how to move them over the goal line will make you a winning
Those who live the life know that government leaders live in a
fishbowl, as if whatever they do could be broadcast around the
world. National service requires a level of openness unheard of by
leaders in for-profit organizations and even nonprofit enterprises.
Social networks and media demand a new level of transparency.
Generational shifts, technological advancement, revenue shortfalls,
and political changes are just a few of the key shifts occurring at
all levels of government. This new complexity demands versatile
leaders with the vision needed to effectively manage it.
The question is how do leaders in government maintain and sharpen
the edge needed to lead effectively in an era of declining budgets?
What Skills Do Government Leaders Need to Lead?
CCL, a nonprofit institute headquartered in North Carolina that
provides research and training to managers worldwide, recently
completed a study that addressed two important questions about
leadership in government:
1| What leadership competencies are seen by government leaders and
employees as most important for success in government
2| How well do government sector leaders perform in the competency
areas seen as most critical to success?
Researchers drew a government sample from CCLs 360-Degree
Benchmarks leadership assessment, which provides self, boss, and
co-worker ratings on 16 key leadership skills and perspectives, as
well as five derailment characteristics. The sample for this study
consisted of 160,752 ratings of more than 16,000 managers working
in the government sector who attended CCL leadership development
Respondents were asked to rank the competencies most important for
success in their organization and how target managers perform on
all 16 competencies. The results were both unexpected and revealing
about the perception of government leadership.
CCL found that government leaders are seen by their co-workers as
having important strengths. The competency most highly rated by
co-workers was the ability to put people at ease.Sensitivity to
issues related to race, gender, and ethnic diversity was also a
strength. Government leaders in our study were seen as resourceful,
and as quick studies able to acquire new knowledge as needed.
Finally, they appear willing to do whatever it takes to achieve the
agreed upon goals of their agencies and work groups.
Current Effectiveness Does Not Equal Long-Term
The survey revealed a mismatch. The most highly rated competencies
among government leaders are not in line with those seen by their
bosses and co-workers as most important for success.
When these same individuals were asked to rate the leadership
skills most important to success in their organizations, the
competency seen as most important was leading employees, which was
rated 15th of the 16 competencies in terms of current leader
effectiveness. Change management and participative management also
were rated among the top priorities for government leaders, but
appeared in the bottom-half of competencies in terms of present
So, while government leaders are seen as highly effective in some
areas, the areas rated as most important for success in the
government sector tend to be areas of relative weakness for these
leaders. This mismatch between skills seen as important for success
and ratings of current competencies could lead some government
managers to lose effectiveness when they are promoted to higher
levels of responsibility, or to derail and be sidetracked from
The Benchmarks assessment also focuses on five possible derailment
- too narrow functional orientation
- difficulty changing or adapting
- failure to meet business objectives
- difficulty building and leading a team
- problems with interpersonal relationships.
When CCL analyzed ratings on these derailment factors among
government leaders, the highest mean score for the group was for
too narrow a functional orientation. This means people are most
likely to be seen as in danger of derailing when they are perceived
by others as oriented more toward functional or departmental issues
and less able or willing to take a broad, enterprise perspective.
Running the government requires technicians, analysts, accountants,
engineers, and the like, and schools around the nation produce
graduates with the technical mastery needed for government to be
effective. However leading in government requires a different skill
set. Those managers who fail to effectively learn this new skill
set tend to lean heavily on their past technical abilities, setting
themselves up for career derailment.
Of course, the ability to take a broad perspective comes, over
time, from having a wide range of experiences and is more difficult
to develop if one has spent most of a career in one functional
area, one department, or one agency.
The second most highly rated derailment factor is difficulty
changing or adapting, and may be related to the relatively lower
scores received by government leaders on the change management
competency. Given the degree of change that government leaders
face, it may not be a dearth of experience with change that is at
the root of this perceived weakness, but rather the degree of
change itself outpacing individual abilities to adapt and manage
CCLs study demonstrates a leadership skills gap in government.
Leaders in government need to be more than technicians; they must
develop skills that allow them to be able leadersleveraging their
proven technical ability and developing an enterprise level viewto
help their organizations to change and adapt as needs require. This
requires developing new levels and types of skillsskills that
leverage leaders strengths, such as interpersonal savvy, mission
orientation, and technical ability, while infusing leadership
behaviors and enterprise perspectives to enable versatility.
Maximizing Learning from Experience: Addressing Mastery and
Ongoing effectiveness requires, over the course of ones career,
both mastery of a number of skill sets (depth of learning) and the
development of versatility through exposure to a variety of
experiences (breadth of learning). Mastery builds ones ability
within a skill set, and can be thought of as having a number of
- critical awareness
- actionable knowledge
- guided practice
- independent application
- skilled performance.
Mastery involves gaining additional expertise in a skill; for
example, learning that managing is different from technical work
and learning how to motivate and develop others. Enhancing
versatility means broadening a leaders capacity for adaptability to
new situations or changed circumstances; for example, learning to
lead managers across functions, departments, or regions).
Meanwhile, broadening a competency involves gaining experience
across levels of the organization, taking opportunities to work
horizontally, or engaging a skill with people outside of the
organization or across boundaries of technology, geography,
demography, or culture. However, budgets are tight. Can we develop
both mastery and versatility in leaders and not break the bank?
Development Lessons Abound
The good news is development lessons abound through direct
experiences at work and in ones personal life. Research over the
years at CCL has shown that on-the-job assignments are one of the
most powerful ways people learn leadership. Assignments managers
find particularly developmental include
- increase in scope (first supervision, first senior management
- creating change (as part of a task force, new initiative,
turnaround of failing organization)
- job rotation or transition to different department or function
- stakeholder engagements
- work in a different culture (international assignment).
We know that on-the-job developmental relationships are also
important, given the lessons people learnfrom role modeling,
mentoring, and being coached by their own manager or by others.
Developmental relationships often cited as rich sources of learning
- constructive bosses (role models, mentors, coaches)
- difficult people (ineffective bosses, problem subordinates,
conflictual relations with peers)
- family members who provide support and feedback.
Adverse situations can be rich sources of learning, as well,
particularly when a manager receives adequate support for the
learning and time to reflect on what was learned. Developmental
events in this category include
- crises ( financial, organizational, national security, health)
- mistakes with personal or organizational impact
- career setbacks (being fired or demoted, missing promotions)
- ethical dilemmas.
Any single leadership development experience can deepen a workers
skills (mastery). But having different kinds of experiences can
provide versatility, from the time an employee starts her career
(building awareness and actionable knowledge by observing an
effective leaders interaction with direct reports), to her first
supervisory experience (enabling guided practice and independent
application), to increasing ones versatility in leading others
through promotions to different levels or assignments in different
regions of the world (reaching a level of skilled performance).
It is important, in thinking about how to provide the best
development plans for leaders, to incorporate numerous experiences
that address both mastery of specific skills and the development of
versatility over time.
For example, one government leader demonstrated both mastery and
versatility as he developed and implemented an action learning
program with CCL. Interestingly, he is an Army general who adopted
a very non-military perspective to his leadership challenges.
First, both he and his junior leaders attended a program designed
to help them become more self-aware as leaders. From this they
shared a mastery of leadership language. Then, breaking into small
groups, they were assigned to projects focused on a strategic
challenge facing the organization.
The demands of working these challenges insured that each team had
exposure to different areas within the organization. The leader
worked with each group, demonstrating his versatility, not only
with technical application, but also in applying different
leadership concepts each small group tackled their assignment. Each
team was also assigned a coach to improve the teamwork and to
enhance and connect self-learning to the real world work of the
action learning project.
Active Learners Lead Best
The best, most versatile leaders are those who are active learners,
creating knowledge out of their experiences. While schools around
the nation produce graduates with technical mastery in accounting,
analytics, engineering, and the likeall of which are needed for
government to be effectiveleading in government requires a
different skill set.
Managers who lean heavily on past experience, technical abilities,
and interpersonal strengths, yet fail to attend to day-to-day
details of leading employees set themselves up for career
derailment. To be successful they must develop skills to lead
beyond the usual boundaries. Career development lessons abound if
you are an agile learner. Applying them to work at your agency will
benefit your career, the organization and the public you serve.
Three Recommendations to Close the Skills Gap
To close the skills gap in government, CCL presents three groups of
recommendations for making the most of work-based development
opportunities for current and future leaders.
1| Sequence development experiences to enhance mastery
- Gradual increases in scope and scale of management
- Small-scale international exposure prior to large-scale
- Membership on taskforce charged with creating change prior to
responsibility for major reorganizations or turnaround assignments
2| Diversify experiences (crossing boundaries) to enhance
- Manage direct reports within ones area of technical expertise,
outside of ones area of expertise, across functions or departments,
outside of ones own culture
- Engage with department stakeholders, engage with stakeholders
external to the enterprise, engage with stakeholders nationally or
- Manage within headquarters operations, manage in the field
nationally, manage in the field internationally
3| Integrate experiences to enhance transfer
- Developmental assignments supported by coaching or mentoring
- Classroom leadership development followed up with assignment
designed to develop needed skills
- Coaching and mentoring following classroom leadership