These days, if you mention Washington, D.C. with anything other than scorn or as the butt of a joke, people might think you are crazy. After all, our political process is nearly dysfunctional and Congress acts more as an obstacle than as an enabler.
True enough, but it overlooks the good work that the unelected federal officials in government — in Washington and throughout the country — do to keep government operational, even when our elected officials cannot.
I have spent the last month reviewing nominations for Federal News Radio’s Top Leaders in Federal Service awards for Federal News Radio. The documentation process is open-ended, that is, nominators were free to recommend leaders in their department worthy of merit. In an effort to maintain judicial integrity — and preserve the anonymity of nominees — let me share some common themes.
Not accepting the status quo. Too often in large organizations we focus on restrictions rather than possibilities and, as a result, we hold ourselves from trying new things. Not these leaders. Whether it was designing a new system, developing new methods of training, implementing new processes or engaging with people differently, the nominated leaders refused to stand still. They pushed and prodded, but mostly engaged with their people to effect positive change.
Working with people. The biggest obstacle in government is bureaucracy. One reason is because few in government service are held accountable. And so, there are many employees who are retired on the job. The leaders nominated refused to accept that outlook and pushed their organizations to achieve. They either instilled or helped to instill a culture where apathy was not accepted and people had to pull their weight or be gone — at least from their department.
Provide inspiration. All of us like to work for something greater than ourselves and, in this regard, these leaders were setting an example about how to do it. This theme echoed repeatedly in the stories told about the nominated leaders. They each, in his or her own way, stress the commitment of service to the nation. By doing so, they provide inspiration for the teams they lead.
The biggest lesson for me in the exercise was the respect for governance. While our political officials are more engaged in rhetoric, our non-elected representatives are busy doing work, making their agencies work with the people they have and the budgets they manage. It would be easy — and we see it regularly — to be overwhelmed by the bureaucracy and simply quit on the job. The leaders whose applications I reviewed did not. Nor did they tolerate such attitudes within their own people. They let their actions speak for themselves.
Frankly, all the nominations I reviewed were worthy of recognition as “best of the best.” Some nominations were better written than others but all contained what I perceived as sincere admiration for the person being nominated. Skeptics may see some of this as an exercise in job justification. Sure, there could be some of it, but certainly less so than the publicity that public relations firms turn out for the corporate leaders they represent.
Does a nomination or eventual reward make a leader? Of course not. But what I took away from this effort is the fact that our government, despite the unpopularity of Congress, is blessed with men and women of integrity who toil to the best of their ability to make a positive difference.
We see this everyday in business. It’s good to see it in government.
John Baldoni is the president of Baldoni Consulting LLC, a full-service executive coaching and leadership development firm. He is an internationally recognized leadership educator, executive coach and the author of 11 books, including Lead with Purpose, Lead Your Boss, and The Leader’s Pocket Guide. John speaks throughout North America and Europe, and in 2012 Leadership Gurus International ranked him No. 10 on its list of global leadership experts. Baldoni has authored more than 400 leadership columns for a variety of online publications including Harvard Business Review, Forbes, CBS/MoneyWatch and the Washington Post. His leadership resource website is www.johnbaldoni.com.