Larry W. Frevert

Public Works is... Leadership in Action

Larry W. Frevert, P.E.
APWA President

The term "leadership" inspires images of heroes riding into the chaos and saving the day. Surely, being a leader requires inspirational behavior and heroic charisma!

Although heroism may be the image of leadership, the reality of leadership is that it is not an exclusive club; it is a venue in which all of us can excel. Leading is a process, not a personality trait.

Leadership is in all of us and it can be seen every day in the public works profession. From the field crew to the public works director, we are all working towards a better future for our communities. We are fortunate in public works that our work to create a better future is usually so visible to the public. A road is paved, a sewer plant is built, trees are planted. These are all examples of the implementation of someone's vision for a better community. Leadership is seeing the future and taking us there. Public works is leadership in action, 24/7.

Leadership also spans all of our profession, not just the government sector portion. A private consulting firm's project manager demonstrates leadership characteristics when she makes tough decisions and recommends a design solution to her client because it's the right thing to do, although maybe not the popular one. Our contracting and supplier partners in public works demonstrate leadership every day when they refuse to compromise on the quality of the product they deliver.

So, do you think of yourself as a leader? If you do, that's great—continue your leadership efforts. If not or if you're not sure, take a few minutes to write down all of the contributions you make to your community. Have you done something today that helped to improve your community? Did you fix a drainage problem, fill a pothole, install a fire hydrant or plan for a new park? Did you inspire your crew to action by creating a vision of what needs to be accomplished in your community? Maybe you answered the phone and helped a frustrated customer. Maybe you purchased, provided or installed pipe needed for a project. Whatever your contribution, you are leading your community towards a better future.

Leadership does not need to be complicated or heroic. It just needs to be done. Adopt a mindset to embrace leadership, regardless of where you are in the organizational chart. First, recognize the value that you and your team bring to your community. Then, find something in your organization or community that needs to be changed and develop your vision for a better future.

Keep in mind that your initial work in leadership practice can be local and focused, rather than on a global scale. A vision might be as simple as "change the purchasing process so our crews can get the equipment needed to provide more efficient services to our community." Another example of a leadership-focused vision might be "transform the customer service culture from regulatory to facilitative." These examples are all small, yet very important steps in moving your organization forward. Often, these seemingly small changes can have tremendous positive impacts. So, don't be concerned about the magnitude of the change you are leading, be concerned about the outcome. Ask how this change will better the community.

Helen Keller said, "The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of tiny pushes of each honest worker." You can be the person who effects change. Be willing to take the first steps.

If you are interested in learning more about leadership, APWA has many resources that can help you on your leadership quest. The Leadership and Management Committee brings you this December issue of the APWA Reporter with several articles about leadership and management topics, as well as contributes articles to each issue throughout the year. An archive of articles on these topics can be found online at Many of these articles focus on the core competencies for public works leaders such as resiliency, respectfulness, accountability and decisiveness. These articles can also help you get started in thinking about how you can provide leadership in your organization to make your community better.

The Leadership and Management Committee also developed a position statement on leadership that was adopted by your Board of Directors this past June and which I quoted in my opening comments at the San Antonio Congress. This position statement, entitled "Building a Better Future," can be accessed and reviewed at: /Documents/Advocacy/Positions/Guidance/Building%20a%20Better%20Future.pdf.

The APWA bookstore has a variety of resources for the aspiring leader. You can browse through the bookstore online at and click on the leadership, management and administration icon.

APWA has also launched a new online mentoring program that will provide quarterly programs on a variety of leadership and management topics. These programs will be delivered by a panel of public works professionals experienced in the day's topic. Participants call in to listen and ask questions via a toll-free number. These are great opportunities to get together with your staff, tune in via speakerphone and spend some time after the program to have a roundtable discussion with your team.

Another exciting APWA program starting next year is the Emerging Leaders Academy. This program will include a two-day leadership workshop as well as a leadership track at Congress for academy participants. Although the class of 2008 has already been selected, this is a significant opportunity for those who want to develop their leadership skills in the public works profession. Learn more about the program by contacting Ann Daniels, Director of Technical Services, at (816) 595-5223 or

One of the best ways to learn about leadership is to network with your APWA peers. Attend a local chapter or branch meeting and meet people who may be doing things differently. Reach out to your APWA friends through the infoNOW Communities. It's as simple as going to and signing up. You will instantly have hundreds of new public works friends with which to share ideas. There are many good ideas out there—you just need to ask!

Very soon we will be soliciting nominations for national committee appointments to serve during the 2008-09 year. Please take a few minutes to review the business plans of the national Technical Committees on the APWA website and if you see activities that interest you and to which you can contribute, either self-nominate yourself or ask your chapter leadership to nominate you.

There are infinite opportunities to lead and learn in the field of public works. I would encourage you to start by thinking of yourself as a leader and then taking action to lead for the betterment of your organization or community. What can you do to inspire change? If you or your organization is stuck on "We've always done it this way" make the commitment to change today. Find new ways of doing business. Find new businesses that need doing. Seek out opportunities and enthusiastically pile them on your plate. You can be the inspirational hero by what you do to make your community better.

Public works leadership is on your agenda every day. You are making the difference in your communities, in your profession and in your world. We are all proud to be part of the public works family that is better because of your efforts.

Thank you for all you do for APWA and for your service daily to the public works profession.