For the past ten years, I composed monthly columns focusing on best practices for municipalities. So when Melinda Dorning, our Director of Marketing & Communications, asked me to begin a series on workplace practices, I happily agreed. For my first publication, however, I am looking back at a column I wrote in 2017 in which I discussed my approach to leadership. It lends a bit of insight into my background as well as how I approach the workplace. The following content was first published by the Kansas Association of Counties in their April 2017 “County Comment” and is republished here in modified form with permission.
FORMING A PHILOSOPHY OF LEADERSHIP
When I began work at the League of Kansas Municipalities, one of my responsibilities was overseeing the educational content we provided to city officials. I joined the organization in mid-August, and shortly after I began, I was meeting with my boss about upcoming assignments. I knew we were offering a workshop on ethics in September, but I did not realize that I would be the one teaching the four-hour class. Given that I had no previous experience teaching, it was quite the daunting assignment.
I am certain the caliber of my class was less than what the attendees deserved, but I remember that the post-class surveys were largely positive.
That encouraging response, coupled with the obligations of my job description, started me on a teaching path that I have come to appreciate deeply.
In addition to teaching local officials on a bevy of subjects, I have also had opportunities to teach continuing education for attorneys and guest lecture for a variety of college courses.
During a recent lecturing opportunity, I was thinking about my work with the Kansas Legislature and how it fits with the broader principles of leadership. A former work colleague, Dr. Jonathan Fisk, asked me to speak to his MPA class at Auburn University. His focus was ethics and leadership in the public sector. These are concepts I think about often, but I had not previously had a reason to put my thoughts into text. It was a welcome exercise to spend time on the subject, and I thought I would share my thoughts for our readership.
My lecture for the MPA students began with some background on the areas that have most directly shaped my approach to leadership.
Three areas came to mind most quickly. The first was my service in student government during college (Student Body Treasurer for two years and Vice President for one year). The second is my time working with local officials and the Kansas Legislature. The third is my role as an elder in my church, where I currently serve as chair. Not all of this relates to public service, but I cannot easily extricate the non-public roles from my philosophy of leadership.
Part of Dr. Fisk’s hope for his class was for me to describe my leadership style and philosophy. Though I never feel adequate at this goal, I prioritize listening in the hope of understanding those I am leading. If I neglect listening, then I cannot build consensus. Without consensus, I might succeed on a singular issue, but I risk losing the group over the long haul. I want to facilitate group discussions and glean information from others, so every reasonable item is on the table for the group’s consideration. I pursue this by limiting my own speaking. Thus, I give opportunities for others to speak, which frees me to listen. Once the group moves toward consensus, it is listening well that provides the tools to summarize a conclusion for the group to act upon. This is a key facet for my style when leading small or large groups.
Another leadership trait I value is delegation. It is essential for a group to move toward a goal. When I am directing others, my philosophy boils down to the phrase: “find ways to say ‘yes.’” This may be a highly conditional “yes” with qualifications that need to happen first. But if someone comes to me with an idea, I analyze it through the lens of wanting to make it happen.
Effective delegation means I need to have a clear vision of what I most value and desire. And if it falls outside of that circle and is merely a preference, then I need to let go. Further, if I have not effectively communicated that a piece of a project is one of my essentials, then it falls on me—both in how I remedy the situation and how I instruct the next time.
I have a deep sense of responsibility and ownership for any organization that I join, and I subsequently find delegation quite challenging. But if an organization is going to thrive, it cannot fall on the shoulders of one person.
Leaders need to build up leaders and plan for their own succession. I desire to make myself obsolete. Everyone is replaceable, but good leaders are mindful in preparing for how they’ll be replaced.
This means learning to delegate and instruct so others are prepared to lead in the leader’s absence. A challenge for leaders is that because there are limited people who will serve and serve capably, we see a high rate of burnout from leaders who try to shoulder the responsibility alone. What has surprised me most is how often a call to serve prompts an unwilling response. My general stance has been that I should serve if there is a need and I am able, but this does not seem to be how most people view opportunity.
I have heard from leaders across Kansas—and experienced myself—that there is a lack of people who will take the reins. This further emphasizes why delegation is so important. By training people in the small ventures, they feel emboldened to take on larger responsibilities. Until there are more people willing to serve—be it elected office, church, or some other position—then organizations are bound to the singular person and that person’s capacity. It is never healthy for an organization when one person bears so much.
LESSONS IN FAILURE
As part of my discussion with the Auburn class, I also addressed my failures. Dr. Fisk began the discussion with a euphemistic “lessons from challenges.” I assumed the students preferred the juicer, “when did you fail and what came of it?”, which is how I proceeded. One of the first examples arrived soon after I started working on behalf of Kansas counties.
During the 2012 legislative session, I worked on funding for the Local Environmental Protection Program (LEPP). LEPP was a grant program where the Kansas Department of Health & Environment distributed grants to counties to collaborate for a regional approach to water quality. It was a successful program that helped ensure potable water while preventing contamination in rural areas.
The Governor’s 2012 budget eliminated funding for the program, and I worked to restore it. The final 2012 budget not only restored funding but also included a slight boost from 2011. It passed both chambers, and I was quite pleased with my effort and accomplishment. Unfortunately, I stopped short.
After the House and Senate passed their budget, I neglected to circle back to the governor’s office. He eliminated the funds with a line-item veto, and my effort amounted to nothing. This ties back to listening well and building consensus from everyone. I am uncertain whether I could have convinced the governor’s staff to align with me, but I certainly should have tried. By failing to account for all of the key participants, I torpedoed the funding. When it comes to significant projects, you cannot account for every variable, but you can usually identify the main players.
It is vital for leaders to not only identify the stakeholders but also enfold them to properly execute a plan. Failing in this step will likely result in failure on the whole.
PHILOSOPHY OF LEADERSHIP
I have been fortunate for employment that lends time and opportunity to consider my leadership style and philosophy. I enjoy thinking about my worldview and wrestling with how individual beliefs reconcile with broad public policy, and I welcome the chance to discuss it with others. But speaking to Dr. Fisk’s class provided a reason to put my general thoughts into text and craft something that might help others who are learning to lead.
In recent years, I have spent time reading biographies of Churchill, Eisenhower, Madison, and Teddy Roosevelt. This list and the individuals on it provide a good reminder that there are many different styles of leadership, and there are endless skills for me to improve. Yet one consistent point stood out on this diverse list of leaders: effective leadership cannot happen without intentionality.
I am well aware of how little I know in the ways of effective leadership, but it was worthwhile to catalog some of what I do know. If you are someone who is in a position to lead, I recommend making the time to write not only the goals you hope to accomplish, but how you intend to accomplish them. So often, I feel like I did when I stood up to teach my first ethics class: like one who is leading with no previous experience. I may always be a student of leadership, but—much like that first time teaching—the pursuit of leading well is always worthwhile.