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!

Applying Servant Leadership

Continuing with the servant leader theme, I want to share a real-life example that I experienced. To help you realize that servant leadership can occur in any organization, consider what happened when I visited the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

When you mention the DMV, most people would say it’s a government bureaucracy that often treats them as a number instead of a human being. I felt the same way at the time—but like we all do every few years; I had to go there in person to renew my driver’s license.  I hadn’t been to the DMV in years and headed to the office with low expectations. In fact, I asked my assistant to schedule three hours for my visit. That’s how long it normally takes them to beat you up.

I knew immediately something had changed when I walked in the front door and was greeted by a smiling woman. “Welcome to the Department of Motor Vehicles! Do you speak English or Spanish?”

“English,” I replied.

She pointed to a nearby counter and said, “Right over there.”

The guy behind the counter cheerfully said, “Welcome to the Department of Motor Vehicles! How may I help you today?” It took me only nine minutes to get my replacement license, including having my picture taken. I asked the woman who took my picture, “What are you all smoking here? This isn’t the same old DMV I used to know and love.”

She asked, “Haven’t you met our new director?” and pointed to a man sitting at a desk right in the middle of everything—no private office for him. I walked over to him, introduced myself, and asked, “What’s your job as the director of this branch of the DMV?” The man gave me the best definition of management I had ever heard:

“My job is to reorganize the department on a moment-to-moment basis, depending on citizen (customer) need.”

The director obviously had a compelling vision for his department. The point of their business was to serve the needs of the citizens (their customers), and to serve them well. What did this director do? Since he had philosophically turned the traditional hierarchical pyramid upside down, his main role was being responsive to his people and cheering them on—that’s why he was out in the middle of the action. He also cross-trained everyone in every job—even those who normally weren’t out front, like bookkeepers and secretaries. Why? Because if a flood of citizens came in suddenly, they would be able to respond. And no one went to lunch between 11:30 and 2:00, because that was the busiest time of day for customers to come in. Everyone’s energy was focused on the citizens and their needs.

This director created a motivating environment for his people. His team members were really committed. Even employees I recognized from past visits—who at the time had seemed stiff and jaded—were now excited about serving.

When leaders are servants first and leaders second, they make a positive difference in everyone around them. Would you like to work for this kind of leader? You’d better believe it. Why? Because he’s a servant leader who treats his people as his business partners in implementing the service vision and solving problems.

Think about what you can do to bring servant leadership alive in your organization.

The Visionary Role of the Servant Leader

I love the saying “A river without banks is a large puddle.” The banks permit the river to flow and give it direction. In my last post I explained that the visionary part of servant leadership is about providing clear direction. If people don’t have a compelling vision to serve, they can’t work toward a common goal. They can’t keep organizational energy flowing in a consistent direction.

Walt Disney provided a great example of this when he started his theme parks with a significant purpose. He said “We’re in the happiness business.” That is very different from being in the theme park business. Being in the happiness business helps cast members (employees) understand their primary role in the company.

Walt Disney’s picture of the future was expressed in the charge he gave every cast member: “Keep the same smile on people’s faces when they leave the park as when they entered.” Disney didn’t care whether a guest was in the park two hours or ten hours. He just wanted to keep them smiling. After all, they were in the happiness business. A picture of the future should focus on the end result, not the process of getting there.

The Disney theme parks have four clear, rank ordered values: safety, courtesy, the show, and efficiency. Why is safety the highest ranked value? Walt Disney knew that if a guest was carried out of one of his parks on a stretcher, they would not have the same smile on their face leaving the park as they had when they entered.

The second ranked value, courtesy, is all about the friendly attitude you expect at a Disney park. Why is it important to know that it’s the number two value? Suppose one of the Disney cast members is answering a guest question in a friendly, courteous manner, and he hears a scream that’s not coming from a roller coaster. If that cast member wants to act according to the park’s rank ordered values, he will excuse himself as quickly and politely as possible and race toward the scream. Why? Because the number one value just called. If the values were not rank ordered and the cast member was enjoying his interaction with the guest, he might say, “They’re always yelling at the park,” and not move in the direction of the scream. Later, somebody could come to that cast member and say, “You were the closest to the scream. Why didn’t you move?” The response could be, “I was dealing with our courtesy value.” Life is a series of value conflicts. There will be times when you can’t act on two values at the same time.

Every organization should have a compelling vision that includes a significant purpose, a picture of the future, and clear values. These three elements will provide the strategic direction people need on a daily basis to perform at the highest level and secure organizational success.

What Great Leaders Know and Do: It All Begins with “Seeing the Future”

OneThe Secret Book Cover of our favorite publishers, Berrett-Koehler, just released the 10th Anniversary Edition of The Secret: What Great Leaders Know and Do—the first book I coauthored with Mark Miller.

The message in The Secret is as powerful in today’s increasingly complex world as it was when it was published ten years ago: You can serve without leading, but you can’t lead without serving. I’ll be blogging a few times over the next several weeks about each element of the SERVE model we present in the book.

To begin, the S in SERVE stands for See the Future. As leaders of a group, department, or organization, we must have a compelling vision of the future.  This compelling vision stirs the passion not only within us but also within the people we serve. It tells everyone who we are, where we are going, and what will drive our behaviors.

Sheldon Bowles, a friend and coauthor, provides one of my favorite examples of a man with a clear vision for his company. Sheldon is one of the founders of Canada’s DOMO Gasoline company.

Many years ago when gasoline companies were all shifting to self service gas stations, Sheldon decided that it would be the perfect time to go into the full service business. He loved to venture where there was no competition—and full service would be DOMO’s market differentiator. He knew people didn’t go to gas stations for enjoyment; they went for a specific reason and wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible.

Sheldon decided to create an experience for the customer when they pulled into a DOMO station, and the pit stop of the Indianapolis 500 race served as his inspiration. He hired mothers, retirees, and others who were interested in working part-time and dressed them in red jumpsuits.

When a customer drove in to one of the stations, attendants would race toward the car, pump the gas, look under the hood, clean the windows, and take the payment. The values that drove everyone’s behavior were safety, speed, and fun. As the customer drove away, they were handed a card that said “P.S.—We also sell gas.” As a leader, Sheldon had a clear picture of the future and communicated it effectively to his people.

What’s your vision of the future?  Is it compelling?  Have you shared it with your team?

I look forward to sharing more about the SERVE model in future blogs. If you’d like to learn more, join Mark Miller and me on Monday, September 29 at 11:00 a.m. PDT/2:00 p.m. EDT when we will host a free webinar on the key concepts of The Secret.

Is there such a thing as servant leadership in government?

(This is the eleventh installment in my twelve-part blog series A Leadership Vision for America.)

I realize that what I have been saying about creating a servant leadership culture in Washington is not easy to sell. To a lot of people, it sounds like “soft management.”

When I am confronted by these kinds of concerns, I love to tell about an experience I had several years ago at my local branch of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Stop me if you’ve heard this one!

When you mention the DMV, most people would say it’s a government bureaucracy that often treats them as a number instead of a human being. I felt the same way at the time—but like we all do every few years, I had to go there in person to renew my driver’s license.  I hadn’t been to the DMV in years and headed to the office with low expectations.

I knew immediately something had changed when I walked in the front door and was greeted by a smiling woman. “Welcome to the Department of Motor Vehicles! Do you speak English or Spanish?”

“English,” I replied.

She pointed to a nearby counter and said, “Right over there.”

The guy behind the counter cheerfully said, “Welcome to the Department of Motor Vehicles! How may I help you today?” It took me only nine minutes to get my replacement license, including having my picture taken. I asked the woman who took my picture, “What are you all smoking here? This isn’t the same old DMV I used to know and love.”

She asked, “Haven’t you met our new director?”and pointed to a man sitting at a desk right in the middle of everything. I walked over to him, introduced myself, and asked, “What’s your job as the director of this branch of the DMV?” The man gave me the best definition of management I had ever heard:

“My job is to reorganize the department on a moment-to-moment basis, depending on citizen (customer) need.”

The director obviously had a compelling vision for his department. The point of their business was to serve the needs of their customers, and to serve them well. What did this director do? I learned that he cheered everybody on—that’s why he was out in the middle of the action. He also cross-trained everyone in every job—that way, if a flood of citizens came in suddenly, they would be able to provide the service that was needed. And no one went to lunch between 11:30 and 2:00, because that was the busiest time of day for customers to come in.

This director created a motivating environment for his people. His team members were really committed. Even employees I recognized from past visits—who at the time had seemed stiff and jaded—were now excited about serving.

When leaders are servants first and leaders second, they make a positive difference in everyone around them. Would you like to work for this kind of leader? You’d better believe it. Why? Because he’s a servant leader who treats his people as his business partners in implementing the service vision and solving problems.

If this philosophy can impact a government agency like the DMV, why can’t it impact all segments of society, including the U.S. government? 

To me, what’s needed are leaders in Washington who believe we should:

  • Have a Compelling Vision: If people don’t have a larger purpose to serve, the only thing they have to serve is themselves.
  • Treat Citizens as Business Partners: People who are well informed have a greater commitment to help solve problems.
  • Involve Every Sector of Society: No problem can withstand the assault of sustained collective thinking and action.
  • Elect Servant Leaders:  The more leaders we have in Washington who realize that their job is to serve, not to be served, the better chance we have of breaking our political deadlock and maintaining our reputable standing in the world.

Thanks for tuning in to the Leadership Vision for America series.  America is a great country and I feel blessed every day to be able to live here. Let’s encourage our leaders to do what they need to do to keep America moving in the right direction. And if you’re an American citizen, be sure to get out and vote on November 6, on national, state, and local political races and issues. Your vote counts! 

I’ll have some final thoughts next week as I conclude this series. What are your thoughts as Election Day approaches?