< Growing Leaders
Growing Public Service Leaders
By Ray Blunt
The Toughest Choices a Leader Must Make
When you achieve a position of leadership for
the first time, things change in your daily world. Maybe you notice the size of
your paycheck is bigger, or maybe you notice subtle changes in personal
relationships—with your peers especially. Or maybe your office is bigger, it’s
better appointed, and even has a window. Perhaps your self-esteem goes up a
notch or two. With all that (and more) you may also get some nagging worries as
you feel the weight of responsibility settling in on your shoulders and a sense
of aloneness creeps in. These are all things you likely noticed during your
early days in the new position. While there is much focus on developing the
competencies to take on this new role, there is less said about something that
is more important to your initial and long-term effectiveness. They are the
three toughest daily choices a leader must make.
They are choices that you must make because you
cannot avoid any of these. They are choices you will make one way or the other
anyway, and perhaps not even consciously. Yet, if there are right and good
choices to make consciously, choices that make a difference, why not make them
from the start? It could make all the difference not only in your life but even
moreso in the mission and in the lives of those you serve.
And, when you look back on your career and your time as a leader, you will
better be able to do so without regret. As Soren Kierkegaard has rightly
observed, “You live your life forward and understand it backward.”
Looking BackwardsAn interesting commentary on just that perspective is provided by Richard Leider1
who spent nearly 20 years interviewing older adults—people over 65—asking them
deep questions about life. One question he consistently asked was this: “If you
could live your life over again, what would you do differently?” Strikingly,
three themes were repeated over and over:
I would be more reflective, take
time to think because life passes so quickly and I was too busy doing to
I would be more courageous, take
more risks; I played it too close to the vest; and finally,
I would be clear, far earlier, on
what my purpose was in life.
Your First Toughest ChoiceThis latter point he makes is your first choice—what is
your purpose in life and
how will it guide you each day? Do you have a clear
life mission statement?
To paraphrase the words of Jim Collins, if this nation is going to be built to
last, you will have to preserve the core values and beliefs and the core purpose
on which we were founded. That is your choice to make.
Perhaps the most important choice you will make as a leader is what will be your
telos, your enduring purpose—who and what will you follow--what will be at your
core; what will you place before the people you lead as the purpose that gets
them out of bed each morning. It is the task of a leader
to connect people with purpose.
There is no better place to go for perspective on this than the place both
Lincoln and Martin Luther King went for the core beliefs that drove them to keep
the Republic intact and to reach the dream that all people live together as
created equals. It was not the Constitution that energized their calling, but
the Declaration of Independence.
We hold these truths to be self evident, that
all men were created equal. That they were endowed by their creator with certain
inalienable rights . . .
. . . that in order to secure these rights governments were instituted among men
deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Our power and authority as leaders is not of
self or of position. It is conferred by those we serve. Our mission is to secure
the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness by serving others. This
is often a choice that comes at a cost—to keep that focus true in the face of
self-interest and conflicting visions of others.
The Second ChoiceThe second choice that you will be making as leaders is how you will use your
most precious resource: time. If you are clear on your purpose, it makes it much
easier to begin to focus the way you use your time. Sometimes we focus so much
on competencies in leaders we forget that the daily reality on the ground is one
of time priority. Look at your calendar if you want to know where your
priorities lie in reality—maybe it’s meetings or e-mail or phone calls. These
are all things that eat our lunch if we let them.
How we spend our time directly impacts on what we ultimately accomplish with
others; how we spend our time depends on what we use as our purpose for living.
If I could somewhat shift the balance of how you spend your time, I’d suggest
Focus on defining reality. What do I
mean? Max De Pree says the first task of a leader is to define reality—what
is true. Speak the truth to power, speak the truth to those who work for
you, and be transparent about yourself. Don’t leave it to others to tell you
that you are naked. I have yet to work with an organization that does not
have what Annette Simmons calls “dangerous truths” that need to be spoken.
Sometimes it requires what Thomas More did for Henry VIII—speak the truth to
power. Sometimes it requires what we all hate to do, give someone honest
feedback about their performance. And sometimes it means opening ourselves
to honest feedback from our folks or saying “I screwed up.” But these
“dangerous truths” require courage and they require that we devote time to
talking honestly and openly to people and encouraging the same for
ourselves. Truth helps in driving fear out of the organization by making it
a safe place for truth telling. It is one of the most productive uses of
your time you will ever experience. And it’s hard. As Solzhenitsyn said,
“One word of truth outweighs the whole world.”
Focus on developing your most valuable
assets. Max De Pree goes on to say that if the first task is to define
reality, “the last is to say thank you and in between a leader becomes a
servant and a debtor—the measure of your effectiveness is found in the lives
of those that follow you—are they growing, adapting, being creative?” The
coin of the realm in today’s organizations is resolutely human capital (an
awkward term)—people--because the assets of an organization reside primarily
between the ears and in the hearts of those who are in the organization.
That’s why serving those who are in your organization, focusing on their
development and their careers is such a good choice. It not only helps in
building the real assets of an organization, it is transformative—it changes
people and organizations helping them become places of grace (and truth).
And particularly I would add growing the next generation of leaders behind
you—leaders of competence and character. Some call that servant leadership
and it’s a soft skill that pays hard dividends. But that’s your choice.
The Third Choice
The third choice you make is where your energies take you at the end of each
day. Consider this poem for a minute:
By Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Are we building monuments to ourselves or are we building something into the
purpose and people of the organization that will endure? It’s a good question
for reflection at the end of the week.
In closing, what I’d like to encourage you to do in these times of such
difficulty for our Nation is to be open-eyed about the choices before you as
leaders. Don’t simply stumble along letting your in-box or your too-full
calendar guide you.
Choose the humble purpose of public service over pragmatism and personal gain.
Choose courageous truth over self-deception and fear.
Choose to serve others rather than to be served.
Grow the next generation of servant leaders behind you. Build a great and safe
place for people to work and find their purpose and calling. Leave your legacy
in the lives of others.
It is in such a life that you will meet a true servant leader down the road one
day and that leader will be you: grown much larger in the ways that
1. Richard Leider, The Power of Purpose:
Creating Meaning in Your Life and Work, (San Francisco: Berrett Koehler, 1997)
Ray Blunt is currently the Associate Director and Fellow at
the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture. For the past
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.