Characteristics of a leader – are expectations different for the government?

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Expectations of the federal government are extremely high. Most of the time, Americans are critical of decisions the government makes and the time it takes to make them. Through the democratic process, our government leaders are elected to their positions, and they make promises to the people while campaigning. Those promises are often very high-reaching goals that, once elected, officials have trouble reaching. I read a column in the Washington Post written by an expert in leadership and innovation, Tom Fox, and in his column he said in order to ensure the successes of federal government leaders, they should spend time defining their approach. Fox then went on to list some of the characteristics of a federal leader: intellectually curious, mentally tough, critical thinkers, flexible, results oriented and imaginative.

Thinking about that list, I came to the conclusion that yes, while expectations are very high for government leaders, most of those qualities are those any leader should have. Are all government officials good leaders? Probably not. But they still get elected because Americans don’t vote for officials solely based on their leadership qualities. It’s true that good leaders encompass nearly all of these qualities, but those good leaders aren’t under the country’s biggest microscope like federal officials are. The media and, through the media, the public rigorously examine those leaders to see how effectively they are doing their jobs. Because so much rides on whether they succeed or fail, including whether or not they are elected for another term, the pressure may affect their ability to focus on leadership. Even in our everyday lives, we think about the pressure on us to perform and achieve, but often our ability to lead gets pushed down on our list of priorities. And then there’s the debate as to whether leaders are “born” or “made” — should we administer some sort of a test to our government officials before their first day on the job to see if they have what it takes to be a leader?

While this blog has led to a lot more questions than answers, I think it’s important to reflect on those qualities Fox talked about in his column and see how our current leaders stand up to them. And more importantly, how we stand up to them and see if our expectations are reasonable for our elected leaders. If we can’t live up to those expectations ourselves, we may want to reconsider how we measure our leaders and even more, think differently next time we are voting in an election.

One Comment on “Characteristics of a leader – are expectations different for the government?”

  1. I think Fox brings up an excellent point that federal leaders should identify their own “essential leadership principles” before they begin their journey. How can an official successfully accomplish his or her goals without a guiding structure first? But, I don’t think that all government officials need to be “exceptional” leaders (nor are they, as you mentioned). As we saw in “The Year of Living Dangerously,” people can be successful leaders in different ways. If we were to implement some sort of “test” to government officials, we’d have to identify one ideal type of leadership. This could create a lack of diversity or different leadership approaches that would threaten the basis of the democratic system.

    However, I love the point you make in the last paragraph. I definitely think it’s important to think about these questions and how they relate to us and our lives.

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