Articles About Leadership in Government


Bringing about organizational transformation as a government manager may seem like an impossible task at times, but some leaders have succeeded spectacularly. The articles and links on this page were carefully selected for their direct relevance to leadership and management in the public sector.  Some are actual success stories, while others outline principles of leadership--or leadership development--that have worked exceptionally well in the government context.



One Person at a Time: The Leadership Genius of Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa was renowned for her selfless dedication to the poorest of the poor. Her approach has some surprising lessons for how government agencies should deliver services--and grow leaders for the public service.


The 3Cs of Leadership Development - Part II: Competency

Lists of competencies (like the Executive Core Competencies) are hard to remember and generally fail to acknowledge that some competencies are more important than others.  Drawing on insights from his 35 years of government service and his 13 additional years as a teacher, coach and mentor to public sector leaders, Ray Blunt provides us with an excellent overview of the most important things that effective public leaders do.


The Successes of Leaders

The trappings of success tend to motivate many people to aspire to positions of leadership. But what if you get there and don't like all the baggage that comes with such "success?" Ray Blunt explores this issue in this column for


The Failures of Leaders

Highly successful leaders are at risk for developing hubris, which in turn can lead them to failure of varying degrees.  In this column for, Ray Blunt discusses this cycle, how it happens, and how was can use reflection, self-awareness and mentors to maintain our humility and prevent hubris from taking hold. 


Making the Most of Developmental Assignments

Research by the Center for Creative Leadership indicates that varied and challenging assignments represent the single greatest source of leadership learning.  In this Q&A with, author Cynthia McCauley (Developmental Assignments: Creating Learning Experiences without Changing Jobs) discusses several different types of developmental assignments, how to get them, and how to ensure they are truly developmental.


On a Mission

Public service is a high calling.  So why don't more of us have a clear picture as to what it is we have been called to do?  In his latest column for, Ray Blunt walks us through the process of developing a life mission statement. 


Why Great Leaders Don't Take Yes for an Answer

Throughout history there have been leaders who made disastrous decisions.  In this article, Michael A. Roberto argues that poor decisions are usually caused by poor decision-making processes.  One of the most important things a leader can do when he/she needs to make an important decision, he writes, is to "decide how to decide."  The process chosen by the leader can have a huge impact on both the quality of the decision and the organization's buy-in when implementing it.  Dr. Roberto dispels several myths about how decisions are made in organizations (e.g. "Myth 4: Managers Analyze and Then Decide") and provides some great insights into how leadership styles, cognitive biases and organizational defensive routines can get in the way of effective decision making.  This article was published as Chapter 1 of Roberto's terrific book Why Great Leaders Don't Take Yes for an Answer.  Reproduced by with the kind permission of Pearson Education.


Building a Better Carrot

Government budgets and personnel rules can make it difficult for public managers to reward great employees with bonuses or promotions as flexibly as managers in the private sector can.  This terrific article from outlines some of the creative employee recognition strategies that Federal managers have used with great success.


Metric Misgivings

The use of metrics is all the rage these days.  There is no question that metrics can be extremely useful for setting goals and tracking progress.  But as Bob Behn points out in this terrific column, metrics will really only influence employee behavior if supervisors are also doing all those other things leaders are supposed to do, such as establish a clear purpose, develop their people, provide recognition for great performance, and obtain adequate resources.  At the end of the day, goals are unlikely to be met if employees don't have the tools, knowledge and skills they need to do the work.


The Toughest Choices a Leader Must Make

New leaders have many challenges to confront, but one of their most important tasks is to make some strategic decisions about what they want to accomplish in life and how they want to spend their time.  Ray Blunt observes that these choices will be made one way or another (whether it is an active or passive process), but it is far batter to make conscious choices that will lead to a true leadership legacy.

Growing Leaders of Character

In this Q&A with, Gene Klann of the Center for Creative Leadership discusses his recent book Building Character: Strengthening the Heart of Good Leadership.  He discusses the importance of stretch assignments and job rotations, and suggests how government agencies can train leaders of character despite shrinking budgets.  He also asserts that setting a positive leadership example is "the highest form of leadership" because people tend to imitate the behaviors they see in their leaders.


How to Get Ahead without Tooting Your Own Horn

Most of us have worked with (or for) self-promoters who seem to put their own advancement ahead of the interests of the organization.  We cringe at the idea of self-promotion, but is it really possible to advance our careers without drawing attention to our accomplishments?  That is the dilemma Ray Blunt addresses in his latest column for 


Two Leaders--Two Legacies

Thomas Jefferson and William Wilberforce had a great deal in common early in their lives--up to the point in their nascent political careers when they each sponsored unsuccessful legislation to abolish slavery.  Their lives then took different paths.  Wilberforce, one of Britain's most brilliant politicians of the early 19th Century, sacrificed his political ambitions to persist in a difficult--and ultimately successful-- 40-year struggle to end the slave trade and slavery in England and its colonies.  Jefferson went on to the Presidency and ended up supporting compromises that extended slavery.  Why didn't Jefferson persist in the fight against slavery?  Why did Wilberforce?  Ray Blunt argues that answer lies with their early mentors, who had a key role in shaping their respective worldviews. 


The Power of One

In his July 2006 column for, Ray Blunt discusses how the increased emphasis on individualism in American society may be undermining our sense of community--and impacting leadership behaviors in unexpected ways.  Includes the inspiring story of a community in Nebraska that banded together to feed every troop train that passed through during World War II.  His arguments run counter to commonly held beliefs about one person being able to change the world.  What do you think? 


The Leadership Dilemma in a Democratic Society

Over a two-year period, the Public Sector Consortium (at the time known as the High Performing Federal Agencies Community of Practice) developed a series of systems maps that illustrate the kinds of leadership dilemmas faced by public managers in a democratic society.  For example, the need to show short-term results for a new administration tends to reward command-and-control leadership styles and complicates efforts to define a clear mission for an agency.  The Consortium developed the maps to help leaders and the professionals who design leadership development programs to engage in dialogue about the systems and structures in their own organizations. The intention is to create opportunities for organizations to create the structures and systems that support quality public sector leadership. The Public Sector Consortium also offers training courses.  Contact Georgie Bishop for more information.  Article used by with the kind permission of the the Public Sector Consortium.


Learning to Ride a Bike--and to Lead

In his April 2006 column for, Ray Blunt asserts that not enough government agencies focus on the leadership development activities with the highest impact: challenging, work-based experiences and significant interaction with senior leaders.  "Leaders learn to lead," he says, "in the classroom of experience with senior leaders." 


Best Principles Before Best Practices

In Ray Blunt's February 2006 column he observes that many government organizations are too quick to emulate the "Best Practices" of top-tier companies and agencies.  In many cases, what works for one organization may not be compatible with the culture--or needs--of another.  In designing a leadership development program, he asserts, it's essential to start with five basic principles as a framework.  Four of those principles require leaders to take responsibility for growing other leaders. 


What's a Manager to Do?

When Jim Trinka was Director of Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness for the IRS, he conducted extensive research on what separates the IRS's most effective leaders from the rest.  Drawing on more than 1,000 360-degree evaluations of managers, Trinka determined that working on two key competency areas--"developing your staff" and "communication"--could increase leadership effectiveness by 50-60 percent.  He also found that the most effective way to develop employees is to ensure that learning is an integral part of their work.  Full of high-impact and actionable advice, every public manager should read this paper.


Courage in the Corridors

In his second column for, Ray Blunt discusses the need for courage in public organizations.  Employees in most organizations wish for--but rarely have--leaders with the courage to make tough decisions, speak the truth about performance, and speak truth to power.  Mr. Blunt describes several steps leaders can take to foster courage in their organizations.


The "3Cs" of Developing Leaders

In this column, his first in a series for, Ray Blunt introduces the key elements of a successful leadership development program and asks us to ponder why it's so hard to find time for developing the next generation of leaders.   


Leadership in the Crucible

Servant leader Ray Blunt has found that one of the greatest challenges we face in government is how to develop leaders of character.  As Abraham Lincoln once observed, "if you really want to test a man's character, give him power."  In this insightful article from the Winter 2003-2004 issue of The Public Manager, Blunt describes three "character courses," activities that leaders and aspiring leaders can pursue to cultivate their leadership--and their character at the same time.  These include reflective work that results in a guiding life purpose or mission; learning from the life and experiences of mentors; and being part of a community of practice that learns together and holds each other accountable. Highly recommended.  Posted by with the kind permission of the publisher.


Build Up Your People

Commander Mike Abrashoff's success in turning the USS Benfold into the best ship in the Pacific Fleet (if not the entire U.S. Navy) were first reported in the terrific 1989 FastCompany article, "Grassroots Leadership."  Abrashoff has gone on to publish two Best Sellers, It's Your Ship and Get Your Ship Together, both of which are great reads with many useful insights.  In October 2004, ICMA's PM Magazine published the article "Build Up Your People," which is excerpted from Abrashoff's first book.  As with Abrashoff's other books and articles, this one is inspiring because it includes a rare combination of 1) compelling stories; 2) clearly measurable results, and 3) actionable tips. 


Doing a Job

Admiral Hyman Rickover (1900-1986), the “Father of the Nuclear Navy,” was one of the most successful—and controversial- public managers of the 20th Century. His accomplishments are the stuff of legend. For example, in three short years, Rickover’s team designed and built the first nuclear submarine--the Nautilus—an amazing feat of engineering given that it involved the development of the first use of a controlled nuclear reactor. The Nautilus not only transformed submarine warfare, but also laid the groundwork for a whole fleet of nuclear aircraft carriers and cruisers (which was also built by Rickover and his team).  This article is an excerpt from a speech Rickover delivered at Columbia University in 1982, in which he succinctly outlined his management philosophy. His determination, clarity of purpose, emphasis on developing his people, high standards, and willingness to give his people ownership of their work had to have been very inspiring to his people. He was known to take some of his strengths to extremes, however, which no doubt led to his reputation in some circles as being difficult to work for.


Reframing the Conversation on Management

Would you ever guess that the U.S. Department of State has a Center for Administrative Innovation?  Or that the administrative sections at six U.S. Embassies are ISO 9000 certified (and seven more will be soon)?  This speech by Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Bill Eaton outlines the management philosophy that has launched a major transformation of administrative services at State.  This is a great story of quality, innovation, performance measurement--and leadership.  Posted by with permission.


Performance Leadership [PDF]

In this terrific report for the IBM Center for the Business of Government, Bob Behn outlines 11 leadership practices that public managers can use as a framework for improving performance.  Superbly organized and full of great examples, this paper provides many insightful--and actionable--suggestions.  Even the end notes are a good read.


Courage in Crisis

Ambassador Prudence Bushnell, recipient of the 2004 Service to America Medal for Career Achievement, has made a career out of doing the right thing.  This inspiring article from Government Executive Magazine describes two key events that defined Amb. Bushnell as a great leader.  The first was her courageous--and rather solitary--effort to stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.  Second was her leadership as U.S. Ambassador to Nairobi, which was crucial to holding together the Embassy staff  in the aftermath of the 1998 bombing by Al Qaeda.


Tactical Management

Public managers often complain that they don't have time to think about the long-term goals of this organization because they are so busy fighting fires, dealing with daily crises.  This useful series of articles from Managing the Skies magazine outlines strategies that managers can use to  work towards long-term goals while dealing with the press of day-to-day operational issues.  Posted by with the kind permission of the authors and Managing the Skies.

The Essence of Leadership

Pete Smith, the President and CEO of the Private Sector Council, delivered this inspiring speech on leadership before the National Capital Area Chapter of the American Society for Public Administration on April 28, 2004.  Includes numerous quotes, stories, and astute observations from his decades of observing senior leaders in the public and private sectors.


Education for Leadership

This very thoughtful essay by Eliot A. Cohen touches on many aspects of leadership, including cross-cultural leadership, military leadership, and the "dark side of leadership."  It also includes a number of excellent stories and some recommendations for non-traditional sources of leadership insights.  Originally published in the 2002 issue of SAISPHERE, this article was reprinted here with the kind permission of the author and the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University. 


Learning to Lead, Part I

This terrific article by MajGen Perry M. Smith (USAF, Ret.) outlines 30 insightful tips for leaders at all levels.  Includes such refreshing ideas as "Criticize Up, Praise Down," "Protect Innovators," and "Squint with your Ears."  Many of the tips presented here are included in the author's book Rules & Tools for Leaders.  This article was originally published in the January 1997 issue of the Marine Corp Gazette.  Reprinted by with the kind permission of the author.


Learning to Lead, Part II

This article has 30 more excellent leadership tips from MajGen Perry M. Smith.  Includes ideas like "Don't Spend too Much Time with the Malcontents," "Don't Allow Yourself to Become a Wind Chime, and "Be a Blame Acceptor."  This article was originally published in the December 2001 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette.  Reprinted by with the kind permission of the author.  Make sure to check out "Learning to Lead, Part I" as well.


Taking Charge

The first few months in a new leadership position are absolutely critical to a leader's success in that position, argues Michael Watkins in the April 15, 2004, issue of Government Executive Magazine.  Watkins, outlines seven common traps that leaders fall into during the transition period that can seriously undermine their chances of success.  See also Watkins' book The First 90 Days in Government.

Notes from a Reflective Practitioner of Innovation

This classic article by Ellen Schall was first published in Innovation in American Government (Brookings Institution Press, 1997).  The author served as Commissioner of the Department of Juvenile Justice in New York City from 1983 to 1990 and was credited for turning what had been a fairly troubled agency into an innovative and highly effective organization.  In this article, Schall provides a superb overview of the strategies she used with respect to frontline workers and organizational structure to bring about profound change.  Contains a great deal of useful--and actionable--wisdom.  Reprinted by the kind permission of the Brookings Institution Press.


Creating an Innovative Organization

In this article from State and Local Government Review, Bob Behn distills lessons from several of the innovative and high-performance government organizations he has studied.  He starts with the premise that "[creative organizations] are created by leaders who establish the conditions necessary to bring out the innovative ideas within everyone."   Not all of his hints are easy to implement (he is, after all, writing about public management), but he cites several compelling examples of public sector organizations that have used these tactics with tremendous success.  This is a great read.  Reprinted by the kind permission of State and Local Government Review.


Growing Leaders for the Public Service [PDF]

This document combines two outstanding reports that Ray Blunt wrote for the IBM Center for the Business of Government.  In "Leaders Growing Leaders: Preparing the Next Generation of Public Service Executives," Blunt describes the vital role that senior government executives must play in developing the next generation of leaders. He includes vivid case studies of three senior executives who successfully cultivated the leadership skills of their people by being good exemplars, mentors, coaches and teachers.  In "Organizations Growing Leaders: Best Practices and Principles in the Public Service," Blunt profiles five U.S. Government agencies that have implemented successful leadership development programs.  He explains what the successful programs have in common--and what that means for agencies that aspire to growing their own leaders.


Remarks on Leadership By Kenneth Ashworth [PDF]

Kenneth Ashworth spent 21 years as Commissioner of Higher Education for the State of Texas and later wrote the book, Caught Between the Dog and the Fireplug, or How to Survive Public Service.  Ashworth gave this insightful and entertaining speech about leading up in the public sector as the opening address at the October 2001 Central Texas ASPA Conference.  Includes several great anecdotes from his book.


Leadership Lessons from the Mars Missions

This interview with Charles Elachi, Director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was published in the March 2004 issue of Michael Useem's Wharton Leadership Digest.  Dr. Elachi describes how NASA grooms employees for the kinds of high-stress leadership roles required for managing space missions.  Provides some clues as to why NASA regularly ranks highly in the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government study.


Four-Star Management

When General Bill Creech (1927-2003) took command of the US Air Force's Tactical Air Command (TAC) in 1978, the organization was in dire straits.  Combat readiness was at an all-time low, maintenance was sloppy, and accident rates were high.  The Air Force as a whole was being described by some observers as "ready for the last war" (as opposed to being ready for the next one).  In his six years in charge of TAC, Gen. Creech orchestrated an extraordinary turnaround that ultimately swept through the rest of the Air Force and many other parts of the U.S. Armed Forces. Many people credit Creech's leadership, management reforms, and tactical innovations for the USAF's dominance in the Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Iraq.  This is one of the most compelling--and useful--stories of organizational transformation you will find anywhere.  Originally published by INC. Magazine in January 1987.  


Creating Leadership for the Twenty-First Century

According to Bob Behn, top-down administrative "fixes" designed to enhance government performance never work as designed because they fail to account for the human factor.  Administrative fixes assume that organizations can work well on autopilot when, in reality, the government's programs are accomplished by people--not by systems.  So the most effective way to improve performance, he argues, is to help front-line supervisors develop the leadership skills they need to drive performance to higher levels.  Professor Behn makes several excellent suggestions for how to do this.  This excerpt from the book For the People: Can We Fix Public Service? is reprinted here by the kind permission of The Brookings Institution Press.


Their Best Friend At Work

Diane Marinacci of the General Services Administration has built a high-performance team by putting an unusual amount of effort into the hiring process and using a variety of management practices that foster teamwork and make it clear to her staff that she really cares about them. Excellent article from the November 2003 Gallup Management Journal, reproduced by with permission. 


Leaders and Stories

Senior government executives have a vital role to play in growing the next generation of leaders, argues Ray Blunt in this highly useful article from The Public Manager.  Blunt describes how stories can help executives pass leadership lessons on to the next generation in a vivid way.  Includes tips on how to identify one's own leadership stories.


Genius Into Gruel [PDF]

In this excerpt from her book Territorial Games, Annette Simmons explains how turf battles at work originate from our territorial instincts. Instead of fighting over land, however, we now vie for information, relationships, and authority. These tendencies are a tremendous obstacle to cooperation in bureaucracies, and need to be curbed when they come into conflict with the best interests of the organization as a whole--as they so often do. Take the author's self-awareness survey to determine which territorial games you tend to play (whether consciously or unconsciously).


The Power of Frontline Workers in Transforming Government [PDF] was developed on the premise that government is much more effective when managers create an environment in which front-line employees are fully engaged in the process of continuous improvement.  This excellent report by the IBM Endowment for the Business of Government is a textbook case of how this can work.  It describes how front-line employees of the Upstate New York Veterans Healthcare Network took ownership of their jobs and significantly expanded and improved their services despite significant staffing cuts.  For a veritable gold mine of reports on good government, check out the "Endowment Publications" section on the web site of the IBM Endowment for the Business of Government


Transforming Government

This article from the August 2003 issue of the Gallup Management Journal describes how Marcella Banks, Assistant Administrator of the Federal Technology Service (FTS) of GSA's Greater Southwest Region, transformed FTS into a truly world-class organization.  Banks, already a gifted leader, made excellent use of Gallup's Q12 survey data (which GSA uses widely) to take her organization to a whole new level.  The results they achieved are quite impressive.


Corps Values

The U.S. Marine Corps has one of the best leadership development programs of any organization in America.  Starting with raw recruits, they cultivate leadership skills at all levels of the organization.  This has been vital to the Marines Corps' ability to be the fast and flexible force that it is.  Inc. magazine first published this excellent article by David Freedman about how the Marines develop leaders in April 1998.  For many more good articles on management, see Inc. magazine's on-line section on Leadership and Managing.


What We've Learned About Policing

Fascinating article from the City Journal about how Police Commissioner William Bratton transformed the NYPD in the mid-1990s.  Using innovative management practices and superb data mining techniques, Bratton improved morale and got the police to focus on crime prevention instead of arrest rates.  The results were staggering; homicides dropped 68 percent and overall felonies dropped by half.  For an even better analysis of Bratton's leadership and management, see the article Tipping Point Leadership" in the April 2003 issue of the Harvard Business Review.


Grassroots Leadership

An inspirational FastCompany article about D. Michael Abrashoff, the former Captain of the USS Benfold, who turned the navy's 200 year-old management style on its head while transforming his ship into the best ship in the Pacific Fleet.  This article should be required reading for all government managers. 


Quotations from Chairman Powell: A Leadership Primer

This article, by Oren Harari, was originally published in the December 1996 issue of Management Review.   It became an instant classic and has been widely disseminated (including as a well-known PowerPoint presentation).  The response to this article prompted Harari to write the book Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell, in which he significantly expands on the 18 principles outlined in this article. 


You CAN Manage Your Way Out

Excellent series of articles from the July 2002 issue of Government Executive Magazine discussing several managers who led dramatic turn-arounds in their organizations and made them great places to work. Make sure to click on the article's "Related Links" side-bar, as they are all part of the same cover story.


We Are the Key to Reform   HTML   PDF

This column, first published in the April 2002 issue of the Foreign Service Journal, argues that mid-level managers at the State Department are vital to the success of Secretary of State Colin Powell's reform efforts.  It outlines seven simple management principles that managers can use to help make the State Department a more effective organization--and a better place to work.  Reproduced by with the consent of the American Foreign Service Association. 


More Success Stories about Leadership in Government