Wanted: Courageous Leaders
Organizations across the U.S., especially those in the public
(government) sector, are struggling to overcome the obstacles and
identify the opportunities presented in the aftermath of slashed
budgets, plummeting revenues, and forced layoffs and furloughs. The
challenge is to prioritize scarce resources so they can be allocated as
effectively as possible to achieve the desired outcomes.
There are two critical success factors required to enable decision-makers to devise an effective process for allocating their organizations’ scarce resources in ways that will allow them to re-group successfully: (1) a clearly articulated “big picture” – i.e., an overall mission statement or vision – and (2) courageous leaders. Organizations that have not identified their big picture can be successful if they address that shortcoming, which can be done relatively easily; those that lack courageous leaders, however, are unlikely to be able to rise to the challenges that face them.
Courageous leaders are principled individuals who focus relentlessly on achieving the organization’s big picture, even if doing so results in their paying a personal price. For example, in an ideal world, politicians at all levels of government would do what they were elected to do – i.e., make the tough decisions that are in the best interests of their city, county, state, or country (e.g., a city council member would vote for the interests of the city rather than of his/her district or, more narrowly, a sub-group of that district). In reality, however, they inevitably find themselves in the position of having to choose between the greater good, and a more narrow set of interests, either their own (e.g., re-election) or others’ (e.g., a sub-set of the population). Courageous leaders are those who consistently choose the greater good, even when their actions and decisions may result in their paying a heavy personal price.
Being a courageous leader is difficult. The reality of a world of scarce resources is that decision-makers must be able to prioritize them in a transparent, fair, relatively objective way that serves the greater good. In the U.S., people often want to have their proverbial cake and eat it too – e.g., they want their leaders to maintain or improve levels of services or benefits without raising taxes or cutting pay. Thus decision-makers often must buck the tide of public opinion, which may include people who elected, appointed, or hired them to do that job in the first place. Especially for public officials, it also may mean having to resist peer pressure from their colleagues.
Courageous leaders are able to see the big picture and, importantly, what must be done to achieve it. They must address a multitude of diverse positions on complex issues. The public sector, for example, must serve people who have a myriad of conflicting interests and who all expect and need to be heard and served. Leaders in that sector are responsible for seeing to the needs of those who have nowhere else to turn, even when those needs consume resources for which other stakeholders believe there are more pressing uses.
In short, the role of courageous leader is one that is fraught with peril, as demonstrated by those who have been pushed aside for having stood their ground in focusing on the big picture. The greater danger, however, is the absence of courageous leadership in our organizations and our society.