The Federal Coach: Take Your Shot at Leadership

06/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Tom Fox Vice President, Partnership for Public Service's Center for Government Leadership

Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.

Like many of you, I'm enjoying March Madness, particularly all the last-minute upsets. Despite the frenetic action, I am awed by the player who gets the ball and the responsibility of taking the game-winning shot. Sometimes it is the most unlikely player who becomes the hero.

Compare that to the federal government where leaders at every level are sometimes paralyzed, uncertain about who has the authority to make decisions and take action.

The truth is, regardless of their position or formal authority, federal employees can overcome obstacles and take decisive action to lead.

To be certain, the impediments are real and frustrating. On major issues, most federal employees need to coordinate with - and may actually need permission from - senior officials before acting.

On day-to-day matters, they work mostly in teams of equals where no one steps up for fear of being labeled "arrogant."

As a result, decisions are left unmade until the next meeting or the one after that.
We need leadership at all levels within our government to solve the many problems confronting our country. To help those struggling to find their leadership role, I have outlined a few strategies I've seen used to lead effectively regardless of level:

• Do Your Job Exceedingly Well. This may seem painfully obvious, but I have seen folks trip-up on their way to being promoted to leadership roles by focusing more on their future than on their present. No one hires an overweight personal trainer. You'll be unable to influence others if you cannot perform your existing responsibilities. Focus first on being outstanding in your current role.

• Plan, Decide and Act. In a recent On Leadership interview, General David Petraeus talked about a sign he saw in Baghdad that read, "In the absence of guidance or orders, figure out what those orders should have been and execute aggressively." The battlefield is an extreme example, but leading at your level requires appropriate action, too. While hierarchy exists for some circumstances, it can be paralyzing. At the beginning of an assignment, don't be afraid to ask whether the next step requires approval. You may have more authority than you think.

• Help Others, Especially Your Boss. I am not advocating that anyone become a yes-man/woman, but you will never be seen as a leader until you strengthen others. For years, Kobe Bryant was considered the best individual NBA basketball player, but it wasn't until he won a championship by strengthening his teammates that he was seen as a leader. Do everything you can to help your boss and teammates be more effective, and you will begin emerging as a leader.

Of course these ideas are just starting points for leading more effectively. For those of you now in leadership positions, what advice do you have for those trying to get ahead? I encourage you to share your ideas, or ask a question on this topic by sending an email to us at Our discussion continues this Wednesday, when we talk to the government's first Chief Performance Officer, Jeff Zients, about leadership.

In a unique collaboration, The Washington Post and nonprofit Partnership for Public Service produce The Federal Coach, a leadership column and blog hosted by Fox. Visit The Federal Coach for more advice on how to break through the bureaucracy and overcome professional obstacles unique to the public sector.