Three recent studies, one of which was reported here last week, confirm what many of us have long suspected: leadership in the federal government is overdue for a major overhaul.

If the administration is serious about cutting costs and driving innovation, then rethinking how supervisors, managers, and executives are selected, developed, and promoted must become a top priority.

The studies, done by the Partnership for Public Service with the help of my firm, Hay Group, all point to leadership as the No. 1 driver of engagement and performance. Without better leadership, they suggest, no amount of restructuring and reorganizing will solve the current resource and funding crisis.

The first study, the annual, and highly popular, Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report, has found year after year that that leadership is a top driver of employee satisfaction and engagement. The second, a smaller cut of the Best Places data, shows that the best federal agencies for innovation rely on leaders who create work climates in which employees are given the flexibility, responsibility, recognition, and development to perform at their peak.

The third study examined a group of federal leaders who successfully drove innovation. Those findings, published in a Partnership report, “Leading Innovation in Government,” confirmed not only the importance of leadership in driving change and results, but also identified new behaviors that today’s federal leaders should be embracing.

What set these leaders apart was not their grade, technical expertise, or time in service. It was their ability to network, navigate, and collaborate; their passion for broadening their perspective and knowledge, not giving up, and doing the right thing even if risky.

That such leadership is the exception in the government is a grave problem that needs to be aggressively addressed. The answer is not more study and debate. Nor is funding massive or misguided training initiatives, or demanding that individuals dramatically change their leadership.

Most federal leaders have never been encouraged, rewarded, let alone developed to assume such behaviors and abilities. Those we studied were successful despite the climates and cultures in which they operated, not because of them.

Certainly managers and executives should certainly be encouraged to develop the capabilities demonstrated by their effective peers and supported and recognized for doing so. But the real solution lies in the government’s ability to change how leaders are selected and developed.
If it is to successfully move the dial on this critical issue, the government must dramatically shift its approach. It must:

  • Start small and at the top. As the best companies for developing leaders in the private sector have learned, the best initiatives start at the top. The federal government should first focus on improving the capability of its Senior Executive Service. And rather than a sweeping but shallow program, it should focus on a core group of high-potential executives who are willing and capable of changing.
  • Rethink the selection process. Too many managers and executives are moved into leadership positions because of their grade, years of service, or technical knowledge. Certainly there is a need for technical thought leaders. But such individuals are often incapable – and uninterested – in leading people. Most federal leaders need to be selected based on their ability to think strategically, create ambitious yet achievable visions, influence and collaborate, and drive results through others. There is no place for narrow, tactical, micro-managers in the senior levels of government.
  • Revise development processes. Most leadership development in the federal government continues to be a variation on the tired and outdated, “spray and pray” approach. This sort of mass indoctrination, while a cheap way of “checking off the box,” does little to change behavior and grow good leaders.
  • Eliminate “stupid” roles. Overlooked in the leadership debate are the roles these leaders must assume. As organizations evolve, flatten, and grow in complexity, many traditional roles are not longer doable or necessary and should be eliminated or changed. Nothing is more debilitating or frustrating than being placed in an outdated, unnecessary, or undoable role.
  • As in any organization, the federal government has its share of bad leaders who should be eliminated. But the vast majority who come to work every day wanting to do their best, deserve more and better development and support than they are now receiving. So do their customers and employers — the taxpayers.

Scott Spreier heads Hay Group’s Leadership and Talent Practice in the Federal Sector.