4 Business Practices for Government Leaders

Four years ago, I wrote a blog post about how disappointed Americans were with our political system and activities that were taking place during the months leading up to the presidential election. I followed that with a series of blogs offering advice to both political parties about how to lead at a higher level. As we approach the final weeks of another presidential election cycle, I’d like to revisit that information.

As in 2008, the four business leadership practices I’ve implemented in organizations around the world can be adapted to provide stronger leadership in government.

The first practice is to Have a Compelling Vision. This country needs a clear and compelling vision that people are passionate to follow. A vision is made up of three elements—a purpose, a picture of the future, and values that will guide behaviors on a day-to-day basis.

A perfect example of a compelling vision is the one Martin Luther King, Jr. outlined in his “I Have a Dream” speech. By describing a world where his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” he created powerful and specific images arising from the values of brotherhood, respect, and freedom for all. King’s vision continues to mobilize and guide people beyond his lifetime because it illuminates a significant purpose, provides a picture of the future, and describes values that echo those of our founding fathers.

The second practice is to Treat Citizens as Your Business Partners. The more information people have about a problem, the more likely they are to help resolve it. Government leaders at every level need to be open about dilemmas we are facing—and citizens need to get involved by understanding the intricacies of issues they will be voting on. I encourage government officials to work closely with citizens to create a true partnership. Working together is the way to develop solutions for all kinds of problems.

The third practice is to Involve Every Sector of Society. In their book To Transform a City, Sam Williams and Eric Swanson explain that there are three primary sectors in our society, each of which has three domains.  They are:

  • The Public Sector – government, military, and education
  • The Private Sector – business, arts/entertainment, and media
  • The Social Sector – faith community, nonprofit organizations, and families

In the past, when searching for solutions to local, state, or national problems, the focus has tended to be on only two of these nine domains—government and business. When people start believing that our problems can be solved only by government or by business, problem solving is doomed to failure because the other seven domains are on the outside looking in—and some of them have become our country’s most critical judges.

The fourth, and perhaps most important, practice is to Elect Servant Leaders. The more leaders who are in local, state, and national government to serve and not be served, the better chance we have to mend what’s wrong with our cities, states, and country. Everyone has seen the negative effects of self-serving leaders in every segment of our society. We need to elect leaders who really live their role as servants to the people.

America is a great county. I feel blessed to live here. I also feel it is my duty as a citizen to support our leaders—and one way I can do that is to encourage them to implement these four leadership practices.

And on November 8, don’t forget that it is the duty of every American to vote!

Developing Your Leadership Point of View

One of the most important things you can do as a leader is to share information about yourself with your team. Communicating your purpose, values, and expectations is the best way to create an authentic relationship with your staff. Creating your Leadership Point of View is a great way to start.

I read Noel Tichy’s book The Leadership Engine (Harper Collins, 2007) and talked with him about his research on effective leaders. He told me he found that the most successful leaders have a clear, teachable leadership point of view and are willing to share it with others. My wife, Margie, and I were so fascinated with this idea that we created a course called Communicating Your Leadership Point of View as part of the Masters of Science in Executive Leadership program offered jointly by The Ken Blanchard Companies and the School of Business at the University of San Diego.

In the class, we ask students to think about key people who have influenced their lives—such as parents, grandparents, coaches, or bosses. What did they learn about leadership from these people? Then we ask them to remember key events that were turning points for them. How did those experiences prepare them for a leadership role and what did they learn? The next step involves identifying their personal purpose and values.

The critical task in the process is putting all this information into a story format that can be shared with direct reports and colleagues. People relate to and remember stories. It would be easy to read a list of values to your team, but that isn’t very impactful. Sharing stories about actual events is a more personal and authentic way to communicate. Stories paint a picture that allows others to see the consistency between your values, words, and actions.

We have had such a great experience with this exercise in class that we are now using the same process with our clients. It isn’t an activity to rush through. You need to spend thoughtful, reflective time thinking and writing about the people and events that helped shape who you are as a leader.  When you share your Leadership Point of View with people on your team, they’ll have the benefit of knowing where you’re coming from and a clear understanding about not only what you expect from them but also what they can expect from you.

Give it a try. I guarantee you’ll rediscover some of your core beliefs about leadership. When you share information about yourself with your team, you’ll build a trusting, respectful relationship that will help everyone flourish.

Leadership is a Partnership

Leadership is not something you do to people. It’s something you do with people. I have believed this statement my entire career—and it might be even more important now than it was 35 years ago. Workforces are more diverse, workplaces are less centralized, and technology continues to revolutionize how business is conducted and how people communicate. The most successful leaders are the ones who partner with their staff.

Partnership starts with clear and frequent communication. Leaders must establish a rhythm or consistent schedule of discussions with team members. I suggest that leaders meet at least once a week, for 30 minutes with each direct report. That might sound like a lot of extra work, but I guarantee if you spend this time you’ll create trusting relationships with your team that will improve morale and productivity in your department.

Use these meetings to work with your team member to set clear goals, to praise progress on tasks, to redirect efforts if necessary, and to celebrate the completion of each project. It is critical that the leader and team member participate equally in these meetings, speak their truths, and listen with the intent of learning something—not judging.

Some of you reading this might be saying, “This isn’t new information.” You’re right it isn’t—but it is such a simple truth of leadership that I want to remind people again and again. You’ve probably heard me say that the information I provide for leaders is just common sense. But I also say that my philosophy isn’t always commonly practiced.

My goal is to have every leader start having these important conversations with their teams. I urge you to partner with each team member to help them be successful. So, I provide this reminder for you to be a leader that makes this common sense, common practice. You’ll soon realize how a small investment of time spent partnering with your people will build a stronger, more self-reliant team.

Set Boundaries for an Empowered Workforce

Setting boundaries to help empower people might sound like a contradiction. When managed correctly, though, well placed boundaries can ensure a strong culture of empowerment for your entire company.

I’ve often said that a river without banks is a large puddle. If you empower people by setting them loose without any direction, they can lose momentum and focus—or, even worse, they can make costly mistakes or put a project at risk. Like the banks of a river, properly set boundaries will channel energy in the right direction so that people can take on more responsibility as they grow and develop.

The key to setting boundaries is to ensure people know the areas where they can be autonomous and responsible rather than focusing on things they are not permitted to do. Boundaries are based on each person’s skill level and are meant to help the person understand how their goals align with the overall vision and goals of the organization. Helping people see how their work fits into the big picture allows them to become peak performers.

It is also important for managers to explain the decision making process in an empowered culture. Some people think being empowered means they get to make all the decisions. They could be disappointed when the manager continues to make strategic decisions and leaves only some operational decisions to them. And they might hesitate to make decisions at all when they realize they will be held accountable for the results—both good and bad.

Yes, empowerment means people have the freedom to act, but it also means they are accountable for results. The right balance is to have managers continue making strategic decisions and get team members involved in making more operational decisions as they become more comfortable with assuming the potential risks involved. As people gradually accept more responsibility for decisions and consequences, managers can pull back on their involvement.

It takes a little time in the beginning for managers to establish boundaries for team members, but this investment has a huge payoff. The worst thing a manager can do is to send people off on their own with no clear direction and then punish them when they make mistakes. Don’t fall into that trap. Establish clear boundaries that will empower people to make decisions, take initiative, act like owners, and stay on track to reach both personal and organizational goals.

Refiring Spiritually: Working for the Common Good

Japanese meditation or zen garden simplicity , calmness and balaIn our new book Refire! Don’t Retire: Make the Rest of Your Life the Best of Your Life, Dr. Morton Shaevitz and I talk about four keys. The first key, Refiring Emotionally, is about creating connection; the second key, Refiring Intellectually, refers to lifelong learning; and the third key, Refiring Physically, is about keeping active to improve your mental outlook.

The fourth key is Refiring Spiritually. When I begin to talk about this topic, people often assume it’s going to be about religion. But I’m actually referring to the universal sense of the word spiritual as the opposite of material things. Refiring Spiritually is about getting in touch with something important outside of yourself—looking outward instead of inward. I believe when people have an opportunity to focus outside themselves, they will work toward a higher purpose. After all, it’s hard to become stale, bored, or dissatisfied with your work or your life when you are doing something that serves the greater good.

As the Chief Spiritual Officer of our company, I leave a morning message every day to praise and inspire people. I want everyone in our company to hear when someone has accomplished a big goal or when someone needs a little help with achieving something personally or professionally. Leaders who provide opportunities for giving and spiritual growth help people understand that it’s not all about them.

For example, we have a self-organized team called Blanchard for Others that donates time and funds to help other charities in the community. In another program we call Blanchard Gives Back, every year we set aside a percentage of our profits and allow each of our people to designate a portion to go to a charity of their choice. We also encourage employees to take up to 40 paid hours a year to donate their time to charitable organizations. Do our people feel good about the difference they are making in the world? You bet they do.

In our book, Morton and I share a code of conduct that I think can help you find ways for your people to grow spiritually, too. Encourage your people to think about these statements from the perspective of their own working environment:

  • Be aware—See the big picture
  • Be forgiving—Give up being right
  • Be grateful—Count your blessings
  • Be accepting—Realize you’re not in total control
  • Be humble—Realize you’re not the center of the universe

It’s amazing what people can do when they work toward something bigger than themselves. Encouraging people to focus on the greater good works in our company—and I think it can work in yours as well.

RefireTo learn more about Refire! Don’t Retire: Make the Rest of Your Life the Best of Your Life, visit the book homepage where you can download a free chapter.