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Exercise your leadership potential

John Ostrowski, Management Consultant, JOMC, Vancouver, Washington; member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee
Susan M. Hann, P.E., AICP, Deputy City Manager, City of Palm Bay, Florida; Chair, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

If you didn't make it to Congress this year, you missed an experiment where Sue Hann and John Ostrowski teamed up to talk about leadership. The theme of the presentation centered around creating, embracing and implementing your vision, as inspired by Marcus Buckingham in The One Thing You Need to Know About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success. Buckingham says that "Great leaders rally people to a better future." Well, if that is true, how do you know what a better future looks like?

This can be a very dicey question. Who defines better? Is it the City Council, the City Manager, the voters, the taxpayers, the business community, the citizens who attend Council meetings?

What is better? Think about your community relative to growth issues. Would better look like more growth, less growth, no growth, just certain kinds of growth? What about taxes? Are fewer taxes always better?

Without a solid vision, the community agenda can be set and reset by virtually anyone. One of the benefits of having a vision is that you know where you're going and you can tell if your current activities are helping you get there.

As a public works leader, you are most likely in a position to shape the vision of your community or at least the vision for your department, division or work unit. Anyone can develop a vision, even if it is only a personal statement. Don't feel limited by a scope that is too small or too large. Your vision might be trees lining every street in the city or no litter stays more than 24 hours at the local park. A vision can be as vague as "more economic development" or as specific as "get a Starbucks in town." More specificity leads to discrete actions and accountability, but less specificity can lead to greater creativity.

More than likely, as a public works leader, you will also be tasked with implementing someone else's vision—your City Council's or your City Manager's. In this case, you should make sure there is common vision between their vision and yours. Steering the boat in the same direction is good for the community and your career!

As you move from creating your vision to implementing your vision you will need to engage in some strategic thinking. Consider who decides public value in your community. Do you have the internal and external capabilities to implement your vision? If not, what is needed to obtain these resources? Who is part of your "authorizing environment"? Who are the decision makers and those who influence the decision makers in your community? What role do your employees play? Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are often elusive and dynamic. Things may change from day to day or even hour to hour. As a public manager, you must constantly reassess where you are in the vortex.

Once we concluded the lecture part of the presentation, John then led an exercise to get those in attendance thinking about their leadership potential. Everyone was asked to spend a few minutes thinking about his or her answers to several questions. The questions were:

  1. What would your city/county look like if it were as good as it could be?
  2. Using your vision as a guide, write down at least three things that would be different.
  3. What are the first three things you would change to achieve your vision?

If you take a few minutes right now to think about these questions you can get some of the benefit of attending our session without the time and travel expense of attending Congress. What you miss out on is the next part of the exercise during which you describe your vision of the future to the person next to you. If you're reading this on the bus you can do this part too, but be sure the person next to you really wants to hear your vision of the future.

The purpose of all this is to test Buckingham's observation that leadership is all about being able to see a better future and then describe it in such a way that others follow you to a better future. If you felt that your vision needs work then it probably does. If you thought you could tell it better, you probably can. If you are in love with your vision and think you can sell it, then you should be a very successful person.

We asked people in the audience how many of them came up with a future that they could implement themselves. Almost nobody did. It stands to reason that we can't do it alone. It also stands to reason that our ability to communicate a better future is essential because of this.

We also asked people whether their future was a bricks and mortar vision or more about relationships. The overwhelming response was that they had described better relationships in their better future. This was from an audience of bricks and mortar public works people. Some of us saw this as a good sign because public life is all about relationships and it seemed that the group had learned that already. On the other hand, we are in the bricks and mortar business. Judging by the latest "D" grade [2005 Report Card for America's Infrastructure; see the May 2005 issue, p. 5 - Ed.], we in public works need to be describing a better future more convincingly.

The audience was also asked to think of someone in their organization that exemplifies the better future they see. The purpose of this exercise was to help them think about what type of people they want in their organizations. Interestingly, when asked how long the ideal person had been in their organization, most responded with less than five years. One person, however, offered that his ideal person for the future was someone who had been there for over 15 years. This person had changed with changing times and was always willing to learn. There's a lesson in there for all of us.

We also asked people at the beginning of the exercise to rate themselves on the optimist to pessimist scale. If Buckingham is right, pessimists can't be leaders. Those of you who think you're more of a pessimist than an optimist should have had trouble describing a better future and finding an employee to be the role model. If that was the case, try to get over it. We need more leaders who can see a better future and know how to convince others to go there. We need fewer "D" ratings and more public works people talking about what a better future looks like. That better future should be one in which we're allowed to do our jobs effectively, using what we've learned from experience.

So, be the leader in your community, your organization or your house. Find the common vision and work towards a better future!

John Ostrowski can be reached at (360) 573-7594 or ostrowj@pacifier.com; Susan M. Hann can be reached at (321) 952-3413 or hanns@palmbayflorida.org.