< Growing Leaders
Growing Public Service Leaders
By Ray Blunt
Learning to Ride a Bike--and to Lead
One of the great joys of this next half of life has been
teaching three of my older grandkids how to ride a bike. I can ride a bike
fairly well and even commuted back and forth to Washington for eight years,
logging several thousand miles in the process. So I “know” how to ride. The
question then was how to help Joshua, Rachel and Carissa learn what I know. In
this simple learning experience lies the secret to how leaders are made—not
born. Leaders learn to lead as apprentices in the classroom of experience with
senior leaders. They may “fall” a few times, but someone is alongside helping
them and encouraging them until they are on their own.
"Leaders learn to lead as apprentices in the classroom of experience with
However, if I followed the typical government leadership learning approach to
bike riding, I would have registered Josh and Rachel in the “Seven Habits of
Successful Bike Riders” training course put on by an expert consultant like Greg
LeMond. Cost: $7,500 for one week plus travel and per diem (the three pound
class notebook of lectures, case studies and outlines would be well worth it).
Or, I might have had them view the video, “In Search of Excellent Bike Riders,”
narrated by that dynamic and energetic expert, Lance Armstrong. Or, I might even
have given them a reading list of the ten best books of all time on bicycling.
Somewhat silly, but you get the point. And fortunately, there are excellent
organizations in government that have also started to get the point.
The organizations that are the best at the leadership preparation game base
their approach to learning on the four lessons of life and experience—in the
following order of importance:
The basis for this approach is well grounded. The Center for Creative
Leadership has been conducting longitudinal studies of effective leaders and how
they got that way for over three decades—research that encompasses the public
and private sectors, men and women, minorities, and global leaders. And while
there are variations in how each of us learns to lead, the proportions are
pretty much the same for us all.
The organizations best at growing leaders have taken this research and put it
into practice. They find that these four “lessons” work in concert and that they
must be intentional and systematic, pointed at developing the character
qualities and competencies needed at progressive levels of leadership
responsibility. These include moral courage, strategic thinking, leading change,
motivating people, integrity, building a shared vision, and political savvy.
Case in point: The Air Force uses career broadening staff assignments after
initial operational expertise is achieved as a means of preparing young officers
for command of small units or for senior staff jobs. Pension Benefit Guaranty
Corporation has senior mentors paired with the members of their Leaders Growing
Leaders Program as a way to pass on wisdom through observation and conversation
and to coach the members of the Program when they are involved in short-term
rotational assignments. Social Security places people in temporary positions
outside their career field and above their current grade to stretch them.
The common notion that people learn to lead by progressing through successive
levels of expertise in an organizational “stovepipe” is clearly wrong in
developing leaders, as is the assumption that something “magic” happens when
people attend an expensive and renowned training program. These are myths and
they are expensive myths.
In short, to help beginning employees learn to lead, an organization needs to
adopt an intentional approach to providing a variety of challenging job
experiences (get them up on that shaky bike) such as job rotations; have senior
leaders walk alongside the new “riders” as coaches, teachers and mentors; let
them watch senior leaders themselves “ride” as examples; and, then spend some
time in reflection with them so that learning can be further embedded when some
of the inevitable failures occur. This is a culture change.
This approach to development becomes not so much a program as a way of life in
the best organizations. Leaders take the time to help younger leaders learn by
experience, who in turn help those behind them learn to lead. This is servant
leadership in action. Once you have three generations of “bike riders” you will
know you have embedded the practices into the culture. That is an investment of
time that is well worth the lessons learned—and it is an investment that leaves
Ray Blunt is currently the Associate Director and Fellow at
the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture. For the past 12 years
he has served as a leadership consultant and teacher for the Council for
Excellence in Government and the Federal Executive Institute as well as for
several government and non-profit organizations. He spent 35 years in public
service in the US Air Force and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. He is B.J.'s husband of 43 years and the father of two grown children, and grandfather
of five aspiring servant leaders.
Based on an article that originally appeared on cyberFEDS.
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