Bridging the Generations in Local Government – 6

Cookingham Connection - Kevin DWe’re in week six of the Cookingham Connection. Today, we hear from Kevin Duggan, West Coast Regional Director for ICMA. Prior to that, he was city manager in Mountain View and Campbell, California. He earned his political science and MPA degree from San Jose State University.

Guidepost #6

Lead those whom you contact—members of the council, subordinate employees, and citizens—into the proper channel by tactful suggestion rather than by too persuasive argument. Make them feel that they have had a major part in making the decisions and in establishing the policies which you deem to be in the best interest of the individual and the government.

Cookingham’s sixth guidepost represents a key management/leadership concept that, while also applicable to the private sector, has particular importance to our work in the public sector.

My observations regarding this Cookingham Guidepost:

  • Cookingham was certainly correct that few people want to be regularly “told” the right answer to every question. While most appreciate that leaders will express preferences/direction/make decisions, they also value the ability to provide input to decisions that impact them.
  • I suggest we take Cookingham’s concept even further than might be taken in a literal interpretation of his words. We need to go beyond having others “feel that they have had a major part in making decisions” and to assure that all constituent groups do have a major part in making such decisions. Whether employees, councilmembers, community members or others impacted by an organization’s actions, we will make better and more appropriate decisions with their input.
  • While successful leaders do need to be able to make decisions and give direction, the most effective leaders don’t limit their leadership style to those attributes. Early in my career, I defined leadership narrowly emphasizing the need to demonstrate decisiveness and authority. The most effective leaders create environments where all the members of the organization can be “leaders” within the context of their roles and skills. True leaders recognize that by capitalizing on the views and opinions of others, the organization will ultimately make better decisions. These leaders don’t view themselves as exclusively having the ability to make good decisions. I hope the days are long past for most organizational leaders when they viewed themselves as the only sources of good ideas/decisions and that once they determined a direction, the role of the rest of the organization was to simply carry out the direction given.
  • Even more in the public sector than in the private, I agree with and subscribe to the notion that “the process is the product.” In other words, it is not good enough to simply make the right decision, but it is equally important how you reached the decision. While we all would like to see decisions made in an effective and efficient manner, we can never lose sight that we work within the bounds of democratic institutions and simply reaching the correct conclusion is not enough. Determining what is the “correct conclusion” may not be easy and may vary depending on a variety of legitimate perspectives. There are even times when making the technically best decision may not result in the best outcome. A technically correct decision that devalues the legitimate role of others or damages the reputation of the organization as an open and participative democratic institution can have long-term negative consequences. Being “right” is not always enough.
  • It is fundamentally important for those we work with to truly feel that their opinions and viewpoints are valued and important. I hope the days of the “all-knowing leader” are behind us. It is not an effective style of leadership, in most circumstances, for the leader to unilaterally decide what is the correct course of action and then to inform/direct the organization. In such organizations, how are the skills of future leaders developed?
  • And of course, those of us in the public sector don’t simply have the internal organization and its members as our key constituents. We have many constituencies to work with (and to respect in the decision-making process), not the least of whom are our elected bodies and the members of the public. We act at our own peril when we don’t adequately involve and respect the role of our various constituencies in decision-making processes.
  • Leaders regularly make decisions, prepare recommendations, and reach conclusions. However, the manner of decision making is critical. Are others simply “told” of the decision or are they given the opportunity to consider options and provide meaningful input? While the leader will most likely ultimately make the decision, getting input and hearing other perspectives shows respect for those you work with and helps give them a greater sense of meaningful participation. Most decisions are not clear cut. Taking the time to explain the rationale behind a decision and seeking reaction shows the leader values those they work with.
  • Often times making a decision is easier than implementing one. Usually, the support and commitment of many others is required for effective implementation. Providing the opportunity for a shared sense of ownership increases the odds that those you work with will feel a significantly increased sense of commitment to seeing the decision is effectively implemented. And in a worst-case scenario, those left to feel unappreciated or undervalued may actively (or at least passively) sabotage the implementation of the decision.
  • Even if all parties are well intended, there is no guarantee that even a well-made decision will conclude in a successful result. If a decision has shared ownership, the reaction of involved constituents to a negative outcome will likely be dramatically different than if the decision is viewed simply as the leader’s decision.

I do not intend via the comments above to suggest that leaders should not make decisions, provide strong recommendations or lead regarding important issues. But as Cookingham suggested over 50 years ago, the “how” of reaching and communicating a decision can be as important as the decision itself.

The Cookingham Connection blog series is published in partnership with Emerging Local Government Leaders (ELGL). ELGL members are local government leaders with a passion for connecting, communicating, and educating.

One response

  1. […] from an emerging leader in local government. You heard what a city manager had to say about Cookingham’s 6th guidepost. Now hear it from the perspective of Ben Kittelson. Ben is an MPA graduate from Portland State […]

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