Creating Leadership for the Twenty First Century

By Robert D. Behn

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The following article is an except from "Creating Leadership for the Twenty-First Century," which was published in the book For the People: Can We Fix Public Service? (John D. Donahue and Joseph S. Nye Jr. eds.; Brookings Institution Press, 2003).  Reprinted by the kind permission of The Brookings Institution Press.

The Reality of What Is Most Fixable

What should we do? What steps should we take to improve the public service in federal, state, and local government? What would be our most effective strategy? What is wrong with trying to implement a few widely applauded management reforms? If we could swear off the costs-less rhetoric, why not adopt some of the technical fixes? Indeed, where is the flaw in the technical fix?

The logic of the technical fix is indeed alluring. Unfortunately this logic leaves out the humans. It leaves out the people who will implement the technical fix. It ignores how people have responded to previous technical fixes. It ignores the predictable ways in which the people in public agencies will respond to yet another technical fix.

The logic of the technical fix assumes that it can be imposed from above. The logic of each technical fix is that this potent instrument requires no subtlety in implementation. The logic of each technical fix assumes that the new administrative system is self-executing: You hit the start icon, and the program runs flawlessly. And yes, the technical-fix program will run. But the execution will be done by the hoop jumpers, and thus (although it may appear to run flawlessly) it may not run as intended.

The logic of the technical fix implicitly (yet unquestionably) assumes that no managerial talent is required to administer the new system. Either (1) the agency managers already possess the managerial and leadership capacity to take advantage of the benefits of the new technical system, (2) the skills required are so minimal that it is not difficult to identify a large number of employees who possess them and to give them the task of merely administering the new system, or (3) making the new system work requires absolutely no talent.

Nevertheless, despite the bluntness of traditional technical fixes, we do possess a variety of ideas about how to manage large organizations. Some of these ideas do concern systems--for example, how to create financial systems to insure that the allocated funds are, indeed, spent for their intended purposes and also to prevent, deter, and catch theft. Some of these ideas concern organizations--for example, how to streamline organizational structures to delegate authority to the lowest reasonable levels, to minimize middle-level overseers, and to enhance the applicability of local implementation.

Of course even these systems do not always work perfectly. In part this is because the people who work in these organizations are not angels. Whether the organization is public or private, the nonangels within can figure out, for example, how to evade the strictures of the financial system. In addition, even angels can make mistakes. Thus the General Accounting Office can report, year after year, that the federal government makes improper financial payments totaling billions of dollars! 29

Sometimes, however, government finds it impossible to employ something even close to a well-established organizational principle. For example, we know a lot about the disadvantages of large bureaucracies and the advantages of lean organizations with few layers and delegated authority for both decisionmaking and implementation.30 Yet, because public officials at all levels distrust their subordinates, they are unwilling to delegate authority. Thus government agencies are hardly lean machines. Instead they are heavy with staff--people with the responsibility for checking up on whether subordinates have made the right decisions, people with the responsibility for making decisions that could and should be made by subordinates, people with the responsibility for ensuring that subordinates have faithfully implemented blunt decisions that the subordinates could have crafted with more subtlety.31

So what should we do? Should we conclude that political and administrative constraints make it nearly impossible to improve the performance of public agencies? Such an inference seems defeatist, particularly when numerous public managers have proven otherwise.32 Can we not learn anything from how these people survived and thrived? Can we not learn anything from how these real, human, public executives improved performance and produced results?33 After all, they braved the same administrative and political impediments that confront any public manager. Each manager encounters a unique collection of formal administrative restrictions and informal political restraints; yet most effective leaders have overcome political and administrative obstacles that were no less oppressive than those faced by their underperforming colleagues. Can we not learn from these successes?34

A fundamental management principle is: Do the doable first. Before you tackle the complicated problems, solve the simple ones. In this case, the easiest thing to fix is the leadership and managerial capacity of our public managers, not the administrative apparatus of government, not the human propensities of our politics.35 We would do best to focus on improving the capabilities and strategies of public executives, the people upon whom we citizens depend to manage the organizations that will produce the results we value. We would do best to focus on improving the ability of public executives to function effectively within the limitations and constraints imposed by the administrative apparatus and political vagaries of government. Admittedly the easiest thing to fix is not particularly easy; otherwise many more public managers would be doing an excellent job. Fixing the managers looks easy only on a relative scale.

Building the Public Manager's Capacity for Leadership

Still, we do understand some concepts that can help public managers to actually be effective--some principles of leadership and management (other than risk aversion and hoop jumping) that they can employ to improve the performance of their agencies. These are not scientific formulas that when applied accurately produce precisely predictable results. Public management is not even an inexact science.43 A public manager's professional repertoire is very difficult to codify, if only because the variables that the manager must take into account when scanning this repertoire for likely similarities are so diverse, so ill defined, so illusive.44

Nevertheless, every public manager, like every professional in any field, possesses a large repertoire of skills and strategies. Over years of practice, each public manager has built up his or her repertoire, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. Few may be able to explain the distinct items in their repertoire, even though they use them frequently. Nevertheless the professionals with the broadest, the deepest, and the most analytical repertoire will be the most effective; they will possess the capacity to respond most competently and creatively to a very diverse set of challenges.45

Thus, to fix public management, we ought to take three explicit, conscious steps to expand the capacity of the individuals who lead (and will lead) our public agencies:

  • We ought to rotate public managers through a wide variety of assignments to give them the broadest possible set of experiences from which to develop a robust professional repertoire.46
  • We ought to create a wide variety of formal learning opportunities to give public executives the chance to test and expand the cause-and-effect lessons in their repertoire and to develop a more sophisticated appreciation for the conditions under which these theoretical linkages do and do not hold.
  • We ought to establish explicit mentoring relationships within every public agency (and even across agencies) to create the implicit expectation that one of the responsibilities of any public manager is to mentor subordinates.47

Each of these three steps is designed to broaden and deepen every public manager's professional repertoire by providing them more diverse experiences and by helping them to codify explicit cause-and-effect lessons.

Articulating a Mission, Managing Symbols, and Setting Performance Targets

What moves do public executives need to improve the performance of their agencies? Lots of moves, of course. Still, some are more important than others. Some have more significant cause-and-effect linkages than others. Here I will outline just three. The leaders of public agencies who have these three moves in their managerial repertoire and who use them--not necessarily brilliantly or exceptionally, just competently--can improve the performance of their agencies significantly.

First, effective leaders create a mission for their agency. Why? What is the cause-and-effect connection? A mission establishes an agency's moral imperative. It tells multiple audiences why the agency exists--what it will accomplish, what it will do to help improve the lives of citizens. To the people who work in the agency, it signals what activities are most important. To the people who are thinking about working for the agency, the mission signals why they might (or might not) want to do so. To superiors, legislators, stakeholders, and citizens, it signals what value the agency will contribute to society. The mission is one (but not the only) mechanism for recruiting resources. Nevertheless, the better the mission--the better it reflects (or leads) the aspirations of employees, potential applicants, superiors, legislators, stakeholders, and citizens--the more resources the leaders will be able to mobilize.

This mission is first expressed in words. But these words must be reinforced by symbols. Unless the agency's leaders demonstrate their personal commitment to their own words through their own deeds, no one will pay any attention. Indeed public service employees (just like their private sector equivalents) will automatically assume that the words are just that--just words. They will ignore them. They will not contemplate and then dismiss them; they will dismiss them from the beginning. Thus the second move that an effective leader must master is to reinforce the words of a mission with symbols dramatizing his or her commitment to the mission.

The most visible symbol is time. How does the manager spend his or her time? Does the parks commissioner trumpet a bold agenda for cleaning up the city's parks but spend little time developing and evaluating alternative strategies for keeping them clean? Does the public safety secretary proclaim a new program to reduce highway fatalities but have no idea how many people were killed on the state's highways last week, last month, or last quarter? People are observant. They will get the message--not the message expounded in a mission statement but the message inherent in the manager's daily schedule and personal knowledge. If the leadership team spends time pursuing the agency's mission, the rest of the employees will, too.

The second, most visible symbol is reflected in rewards. What kind of behavior is rewarded? I do not mean who gets the performance bonus or the merit raise. I do mean who is publicly recognized for what accomplishment. Did the public safety secretary visit a state troopers' barracks to publicly praise its commander for implementing an innovative and effective strategy for driving down the district's traffic deaths? Did the parks commissioner have a pizza party for the dedicated team that kept its park free of litter?

Again, the cause-and-effect linkage ought to be clear (though the behavior of many public managers would suggest that it is not). People will work to achieve results that are appreciated, not because they want or need the material reward, but because they crave the recognition that the reward provides.

What, however, should the public manager reward? How will the leader of a public agency know if a unit within the agency has accomplished anything significant? The answer is the third move in a performance-management repertoire: Set specific performance targets for these units to achieve.

What is the theoretical linkage here? Why, in addition to articulating a mission and managing symbols, does a public manager need to set performance targets? What is the cause-and-effect connection between performance targets and improved performance? Because neither the agency's leadership nor its frontline employees can use the mission statement to determine if they have done a good job this year. The performance target provides the short-term, operational definition of success. The mission statement is aspiring and transcendent; a performance target is concrete and doable. And the causal linkage psychologically potent: Give people a challenge, and the operational capacity to meet that challenge, and many people will pursue it, if only because it is there.

The causal linkage of this small, three-move subpackage of performance management is even more potent: Give people an important societal mission, a significant but attainable target, and reward them with recognition when they achieve the target, and you will motivate people to pursue both the mission and the target energetically, seriously, and innovatively.

Why should public managers be willing to believe that these causal linkages hold? Because we have seen them work repeatedly and in a wide variety of circumstances. And because what we have learned from the social sciences about human motivation supports this linkage.

Yet these moves, and the causal reasons why they work, come alive only through detailed examples. Indeed practicing managers will think about experimenting with such moves (and, if they appear to work, will add them to their repertoire) only if given a compelling example--or, even better, several compelling examples--that illustrate how the move can work in different circumstances. Moreover these examples need to not only describe the managers' moves and what happened next; they must also contain enough detail to permit people to infer (based on this example plus previous experience) their own causal linkages about why a particular move produced a particular result in a particular circumstance. Such examples, such stories or cases, make the move come alive, demonstrating that the move can work and suggesting why; These examples provide the raw material from which practicing public managers can learn lessons and ground their own management repertoire.51

Expanding Every Public Manager's Repertoire

No technical fix obligates public managers to take seriously the necessity of establishing performance targets. The legislature or the elected chief executive can of course require agency managers at all levels to do so. But they cannot force them to set significant targets that challenge and stretch the agency's employees. The legislature or the chief executive can require every agency manager to jump through the performance-target hoop (just as they can require these managers to jump through the performance-budgeting hoop, or the strategic-planning hoop, or the pay-for-performance hoop).55 And these agency managers will perform the requisite hoop jumping. And while they do this, they will subvert the hopes that the elected officials or overhead regulators had when they constructed their new, improved hoop.

Moreover, in requiring strict, inflexible, across-the-board implementation, the legislature or overhead body can actually subvert the strategic purpose of the technical fix. First, because the technical fix is imposed from above, with little explanation, training, or support, it is often implemented badly. Second, the inflexible requirements of the technical fix inhibit the ability of thoughtful managers to use it discerningly and subtly--to adapt the general concept to the unique needs of their agency. Third, this mindless, artless (and thus inevitably flawed) implementation undermines the credibility of the concept itself. "See," the critics and the cynics will observe, "it doesn't work."

The three core tasks of performance management are not all that effective public managers do. Articulating a mission, managing symbols, and setting performance targets are not the three simple steps that will transform the performance of our public service. They are necessary but not sufficient. Indeed, with a professional repertoire of 50,000 moves, public managers obviously need to be able to do a large number and variety of other things. They have to monitor progress, create organizational capacity, reward success, and check to ensure that, as the agency achieves its performance targets, it is also helping to realize its mission.56  They have to know how to do these things under a wide variety of circumstances. They need a large leadership repertoire. They have to know how to deal with the goof-off employee, the insufferable legislator, and the harassing journalist. And in the process of deploying their repertoire, they have to understand the underlying theoretical linkages so they can be creative in crafting each move to match the unique circumstances of their organization and its political environment. Abstractly these tasks seem simple. But implementing any of them analytically, discerningly, and subtly is a significant challenge.

Indeed, performance management is not easy. There exist a variety of psychological barriers that keep public managers from doing the various tasks (particularly setting explicit performance targets).57 It is not that we lack some understanding of what it takes to drive the performance of public agencies. Rather it is that those strategies require a lot of adaptation, a dollop of creativity, a measure of self-confidence, and a little chutzpah. And there is no technical fix to our administrative or political systems that will make public executives more analytical, more creative, more self- confident, or more daring. Public managers only acquire these qualities as they expand and evolve their own repertoire.

Preparing Public Managers for the Twenty-First Century

Different people are born with different aptitudes, and, by the time they are adults, they have acquired different skills. But through effective teaching, dedicated study, and hard work, any professional can improve his or her skills. Not everyone can hit like Ted Williams, but all baseball players (young and old) can learn to be better hitters--or at least every reasonably dedicated player can. Similarly all dedicated public managers can increase their managerial batting average.

Moreover, in helping every public manager improve his or her own management repertoire, we are trying to do precisely that: We are trying to improve every manager--every cabinet secretary and every frontline supervisor. Our objective is not to create a few public management stars--a few Michael Jordans of public management who soar high above everyone else, winning performance championships in a single bound. Rather our objective is to ratchet up every public manager a notch or two. If we could do that, if we could improve every public manager's repertoire, we would achieve much more than if we created even a dozen superstars.

We need more than a few outstanding public managers; we need to improve every public manager. In its minor league operations, a major league baseball team does not concentrate its teaching on only a few hand-picked potential superstars. It tries to ratchet up the quality of every player in its organization. It knows that only by teaching, coaching, and improving all the players throughout its system--by playing thousands of games, each of which creates its own unique collection of circumstances--can it produce a successful major league team.58 Similarly, if we are serious about improving public management, we have to be serious about educating all public managers.

Unfortunately, despite our political rhetoric about making government more businesslike, we have rarely been willing to establish in government the kind of personnel development and training programs that are standard in business (and in baseball). If we truly want better public managers, we will have to do what business does (and what Branch Rickey did when he invented baseball's farm system)59--invest in developing our future leaders. A business that seeks to have competent leaders available to manage its divisions in the future recognizes and accepts the environment within which these managers must function and then makes a major investment in helping their managers learn how to be effective in that environment. The public sector needs to do the same. Instead, however, we seek simple, self-executing technical fixes while neglecting the need to enhance the capacity of public managers to lead their agencies.

This is not a heroic search for superstars nor a defeatist acceptance of the suboptimal. It is simply the best way to prepare many people to lead the future public service, to prepare public managers for the demands of leading public agencies. For the twenty-first century the challenge of public management is to produce the results that citizens value.

This does not mean removing the formal administrative constraints and informal political restraints that inhibit better performance. Yes, it might be helpful if some of these were lessened. And indeed we may see a slight swing of the Madisonian-Hamiltonian pendulum from near the Madisonian apogee to something closer (at least) to the perigee. And yes, it would certainly be helpful if someone would discover a clever technical fix that would permit us to fully satisfy both our Madisonian and Hamiltonian desires (though I do not think we should devote many resources to this search).

Until then, however, we ought not to despair. Rather we ought to exploit what we have already learned about how to improve the performance of public agencies. We ought to make sure that public executives have a broad repertoire--that they recognize the potency of (among other things) articulating a mission, managing symbols, and establishing performance targets. We ought to give every public manager the opportunity to expand his or her professional repertoire. If we do, maybe our public service will be able to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.


  • 29. See these reports from the General Accounting Office: "Financial Management: Increased Attention Needed to Prevent Billions in Improper Payments," GAO/AIMD-00-10, October 29, 1999; "Financial Management: Billions in Improper Payments Continue to Require Attention," GAO-01-44, October 27, 2000; "Financial Management: Improper Payments Reported in Fiscal Year 2000 Financial Statements," GAO-02-131R, November 2, 2001; and "Financial Management: Coordinated Approach Needed to Address the Government's Improper Payments Problems," GAO-02-749, August 9, 2002.

  • 30. Both bureaucratic and lean organizations have advantages and disadvantages. Thus any effort at organizational design seeks a balance, attempting to obtain the advantages of the bureaucratic and the lean, while minimizing their disadvantages. The design of many government agencies, however, is tilted strongly toward the bureaucratic and away from the lean.

  • 31.When Alan K. ("Scotty") Campbell left public service for the private sector, he was immediately struck with one big difference: Business executives have many fewer staff assistants than those in government. Private firms are willing to delegate authority; indeed, they believe it is essential to do so. And they do not keep a lot of extra staff around to check up on the decisions made by their subordinates.

  • 32. Are these effective managers much rarer in the government than in business? Maybe not. Hogan and his colleagues "estimate that somewhere between six and seven out of every ten managers in corporate America are not very good as managers." Robert Hogan, Robert Raskin, and Dan Faxiini, "The Dark Side of Charisma," in Kenneth E. Clark and Miriam B. Clark, eds., Measures of Leadership (West Orange, N.J.: Leadership Library of America, 1990), p. 347.

  • 33. For examples of some particularly effective public managers, see the winners of the Harvard University, Ford Foundation awards program for Innovations in American Government, some of which are chronicled in John D. Donahue, ed., Making Washington Work: Tales of Innovation in the Federal Government (Brookings, 1999). See also Norma M. Riccucci, Unsung Heroes: Federal Execucrats Making a Difference (Georgetown University Press, 1995); and Behn, Leadership Counts.

  • 34. Yes. One explanation for the success of any manager--public, private, or non-profit--is luck. This individual was lucky. Jupiter was aligned with Mars. In fact, however, luck is recognizing it. Every one of us, including every public manager, is lucky. The question is: Do we recognize our luck? And, once we do, are we smart enough to exploit it?

  • 35. Public managers have a spectrum of responsibilities. At one end of this spectrum is the administrative chore of ensuring that the various systems and processes of the agency function efficiently and effectively; At the other end of the spectrum is the leadership challenge of motivating the individuals in the agency to pursue their mission energetically and intelligently. Public managers have responsibilities that range from seemingly mundane administrative chores to compelling leadership.

  • 43. Elsewhere I have argued that the profession of public management is closer to engineering than it is to either science or art. Robert D. Behn, "Public Management: Should It Strive to Be Art, Science, or Engineering?" Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, vol. 56, no. 1 (January 1996), pp. 91-123.

  • 44. Why do business executives often fail when they become public executives? Because the professional repertoire that they were explicitly taught and that implicitly evolved reflected a different set of circumstances. And one of the major differences in those circumstances concerns the nature of the two sectors' stakeholders. Public managers have to pay attention to a greater number of stakeholders with a greater diversity of interests. Thus, when many business executives make the move to government, they believe they can ignore many of these stakeholders; this can quickly get them into trouble. We would not expect a great football coach to be immediately successful in baseball. Why do we assume that a successful business executive automatically possesses the complete professional repertoire necessary to effectively lead a public agency and to improve its performance?

  • 45. Many items in a professional's repertoire are simple rules of thumb: When this, do that. When that, do not do this. For example, take one of the rules of thumb in baseball: Never make the first or third out at third base. Simple enough. But if you do not understand why, if you do not understand the causal linkage in the rule, you are apt to forget it, or to use it in a situation for which the simple rule of thumb does not make sense.

  • 46. Note that the military services have created such a system of conscious career rotation. After all, the services must develop their leaders internally; the navy cannot recruit a vice president from Microsoft to be the chief of naval research. Because the national Forest Service faces the same constraint, because it too must develop its leaders internally, it has also developed a system of career rotation. See Herbert Kaufman, The Forest Ranger: A Study in Administrative Behavior (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1960).

  • 47. When mentoring subordinates, a public executive will, almost by definition, be forced to be much more explicit about the cause-and-effect linkages in his or her own professional repertoire.

  • 51. For examinations of how managerial expertise and repertoire moves are conveyed through such cases, see Stephen W. Maynard-Moody and Marisa Kelly, "Stories Public Managers Tell about Elected Officials: Making Sense of the Politics-Administration Dichotomy," in Barry Bozeman, ed., Public Management: The State of the Art (Jossey-Bass, 1993), pp. 71-90; and Michael Barzelay, The New Public Management: Improving Research and Policy Dialogue (University of California Press, 2001).

  • 55. In early 1970s, the Nixon and Ford administrations implemented Management by Objectives. But what kind of objectives did the various federal departments establish? National Journal reported that "some goals are so vague as to appear meaningless and others are so minute they appear picayune." For example, the Department of Energy created a number of goals including both the vague ("Reduce energy consumption without damaging the state of the economy") and the minute ("Help implement the 1974 Energy Supply and Environmental Coordination Act"). For experienced public managers, jumping through this new MBO hoop was easy. Joel Havemann, "Executive Report: Ford Endorses 172 Goals of 'Management by Objective' Plan," National Journal; vol. 6, no. 43 (October 26,1974), pp. 1597, 1602.

  • 56. An explicit performance target is never precisely the same as the mission. Most organizations can find ways to achieve their precise performance targets and still not really accomplish their mission. At the same time, because the mission is inherently vague, it cannot provide specific guidance about what should be done this year, this quarter, or this month. Consequently the manager of the organization has to repeatedly verify that, in the process of meeting its performance targets, the agency is also contributing to its mission. Behn, Leadership Counts, pp. 74-76.

  • 57. Robert D. Behn. "The Psychological Barriers to Performance Management: Or Why Isn't Everyone Jumping on the Performance-Management Bandwagon." Public Performance and Management Review, vol. 26. no. 1 (September 2002), pp. 5-25.

  • 58. Okay, so the Boston Red Sox have not learned this.

  • 59. Robert D. Behn, "Branch Rickey as a Public Manager: Fulfilling the Eight Responsibilities of Public Management." Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, vol. 7, no. 1 January 1997), pp. 1-33.

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