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The Federal Coach: What Steve Jobs Can Learn From Public Leaders

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

Say the phrase "business leader," and images of industry giants like Steve Jobs spring to mind. Now say "government leader" - and you wouldn't be alone if comic images from NBC's Parks and Recreation came to mind.

Why is it that we associate private-sector leaders with greatness - the man who brought you the iPhone - and associate public-sector leaders with bungling bureaucracy, the folks running around trying to turn a trash heap into a children's park?

It is time to set the record straight and write a different script. In fact, the life of a government leader is vastly more complex and high-impact than that of a private-sector counterpart.
First, let's compare the challenges, using Apple as the example. That company's leaders must manage a network of millions of customers and investors, seven board members and tens of thousands of employees, all under the watchful eye of Wall Street and the press.

Now let's look at our government:

  • Government leaders must satisfy the competing expectations of more than 300 hundred million citizens - the American government's investors and customers.
  • The government's board of directors includes 435 Members of Congress and 100 Senators who always disagree and frequently enjoy micromanaging.
  • Many of the top leaders - that is, the government's political appointees - average only 18 months.
  • The workforce includes approximately 2.1 million employees - everyone from astrophysicists to zoologists.
  • The government oversight community includes the same press examining the private sector, as well as the Government Accountability Office (GAO), agencies' inspectors general, and a vibrant group of nonprofits keeping an eye out for waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement.

With all of his success, I wonder if Steve Jobs could handle a job like this. In fact, why would anyone but Sisyphus sign up to be a government leader? The answer: an opportunity to make a difference.

While I don't want to live in a world without all of the many wonderful folks at Google, Apple, Amazon and Verizon who make my life better in so many ways, the fact is that leading in government can be far more rewarding than in the private sector.

Just look at some of the individuals our organization has honored over the years, such as Dr. Thomas Waldmann at the National Institutes of Health, who is leading efforts to treat previously fatal forms of leukemia and Hodgkin's lymphoma.

There's also Anh Duong at the Department of Homeland Security who, after fleeing a war-torn Vietnam decades ago, became a United States citizen and now develops anti-terrorism technologies. Although it has typically taken years to develop such systems, she leads a team that develops them in months.

As much as I love my iPod, I can hardly continue the comparisons.

Each week in this space, I'll be probing and celebrating the unique challenges and rewards of government leadership -- you are a vital part of the conversation. Please share your ideas about topics we should discuss, questions we should answer or best practices we should highlight by sending an email to fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

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.