The nature of government is changing. Social networks and media are creating a new level of transparency. Generational shifts, technological advancement, revenue challenges, and ever-present political change underscore the kinds of constant shifts occurring within the federal space. Some of the top challenges for government leaders include managing and motivating subordinates, personal leadership, organizational operations and performance, and many more

VUCA is an acronym that has quickly found its way into the leadership lexicon. It stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous – an apt description of the current and future leadership environment in government. Government leaders must possess the skills to survive in this uncertain world and to perform their jobs while under constant observation from a range of sources – from bloggers and other social media to traditional print and broadcast reporters.

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Our research explores the skills government leaders need to be successful in a VUCA environment. It is based on an analysis of leadership effectiveness data from more than 16,000 managers working in the government sector who attended leadership development programs at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL®). The results indicate the top priorities for leader development in the government sector involve:

  • Leading employees well
  • Leading change
  • Developing participative management skills
  • Understanding boundaries and how to span them

Strength Areas for Government Leaders

The ability to put people at ease is the competency most highly rated by coworkers of the government leaders we studied. Understanding that differences such as gender, race, and ethnicity matter is another strong point of government leaders. They’re seen as quick to acquire new knowledge, they’re resourceful, and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to achieve agreed upon goals.

These findings show that government agencies have a group of interpersonally skilled, intelligent, and committed leaders — a powerful asset on which to build.

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Challenge Areas for Government Leaders

CCL’s research shows government sector managers are skilled in several important areas, such as resourcefulness, straightforwardness and composure, building and mending relationships, decisiveness, and doing whatever it takes.

Clearly, government leaders are recognized for their commitment, service to the nation, and unwavering dedication to their mission. However, these same leaders fall short in several important areas.

1. Leading Employees

Leading employees is seen by coworkers as the most important competency for government leaders, yet it is rated 15th among the 16 competencies in terms of leader effectiveness.

Leading employees in the government sector is highly challenging, and leaders can benefit from further development on the key skills required to create direction, alignment, and commitment among their employees. Core skills in this arena include identifying and hiring talented staff, delegating and following up, and developing employees.

2. Responding to and Managing Change

Change management is rated important by more than half of those who responded in our study, but is in the bottom half of the leadership competencies in terms of effectiveness.

Government sector leaders can learn more about responding to and managing change and can develop a more participative leadership style. This means placing greater emphasis on involving others in decision making and getting more input before taking action. These are skills that can be developed through training initiatives focused on enhancing self-awareness and by working with a coach over time. 

3. Providing Cross-Organizational Experiences

Too narrow a functional (or departmental) orientation is the most likely reason for managers in government to derail. CCL research shows that leading employees is something managers learn from a variety of experiences during their careers.

Leaders at all levels can encourage development of this competency by providing opportunities for their direct reports and high-potential leaders to reach outside their own functional or departmental experiences. A diversity of experiences (different assignments, developmental relationships, classroom training) round out skills and perspectives and reduce the possibility of derailment.

The Implications for Leadership Development

In an environment that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA), government organizations cannot afford to put resources into generalized leadership development and simply hope they will achieve the right outcomes.

Instead, well-targeted leader development initiatives are essential to close critical competency gaps and ensure individual and organizational success. Effective and well trained leaders will be able to meet the nation’s needs, manage the work, and find innovative and effective solutions to complex challenges. 

Using CCL research as a starting point, government agencies have the opportunity to reassess their current leadership capacity and can begin focused efforts to develop skills their leaders need both today and for the future.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

At the Center for Creative Leadership, we’ve been delivering leadership development programs for the government sector for decades. We can help guide you and your government organization through times of disruption – and the transformed future that lies ahead. Learn more about government leadership training.

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