EDITOR’S NOTE: In this article, "Karen" is a composite of legislators with whom author Dennis Dresang has worked over the years at the La Follette School of Public Affairs.
Karen enjoyed an enviable reputation as a leader in her community. After earning a business degree at a nearby college, she took over the small retail business her parents had started and, even in a tough economy, grew the business into a major regional enterprise. Karen started a philanthropic organization and found herself on a number of community boards. She was regarded as an effective leader and it was no surprise when she was recruited to run for the state legislature. She won her election handily and soon found herself in the midst of other community leaders working in state government.
Officials in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of state governments need all the traits and skills required of leaders generally. They must have vision, passion and energy. They must be able to communicate and both command respect and be respectful. The institutions of government and the values of public service place unique demands on state government leaders. Karen soon learned the generic characteristics of leaders are not enough when serving in the state legislature.
Democracy fundamentally depends on government leaders representing the very people they are supposed to be leading. This, of course, is a contradiction and requires public officials to decide when to act in accordance with the wishes of their constituents and when to provide leadership on an issue.
The tensions of leadership and representation are most obvious in the legislature. In the executive branch, the governor and elected heads of state also must wrestle with the two principles. Administrators, even at the most senior levels, often have discretion, but in the final analysis must follow the direction of their elected superiors.
Ideally, judges and justices—even when voted to the bench—are the furthest removed from the pressures of representation. We count on our courts to apply law to the facts of a case and to arbitrate without regard to the traits of the litigants. The selection of judges and justices through elections is to allow the public to apply their general values, not to satisfy special interest demands or constituent needs.
As Karen reflected on her experiences in state government, she concluded there are few exact parallels between leadership in the public and the private sector. Profit provides a yardstick that determines how to reconcile divergent pressures. Notions of representing the interests of stockholders or other owners are profoundly different from the responsibility of representing the public.
Leadership responsibilities associated with positions present officials in state governments with sometimes very significant challenges. Here there are some of the dynamics found in private organizations, but again without the mandates for representation. A legislator who holds a leadership position in a caucus or a committee almost inevitably has to cope with legislators who are his or her competitors and who have different agendas. Legislative leaders need to dip into their bag of persuasive and coercive techniques to work effectively with reluctant or hostile committee members.
They may need to bargain in order to get the results they are seeking.
Similarly, gubernatorial appointees in administrative agencies must deal with professionals who have expertise and job security that can be used to obstruct leadership. Effective direction typically requires a blend of persuasion and determination. In addition, effective leadership in this setting requires listening as well as representing. Those who serve at the pleasure of elected officials ideally bring with them the authority that comes from the ballot box. We rely on gubernatorial appointees, and on legislators, to ensure public accountability and service. At the same time, the formulation and implementation of public policies needs to be anchored on empirical evidence. This means public officials must listen to those with expertise and experience. Respectful discourse that applies both the values that come from representation and the expertise of experienced professionals ensures that problems will be addressed by realistic, workable solutions.
When Karen considered running for a seat in the state legislature, she hesitated. Public cynicism toward government and politicians is considerable—above what one would regard as healthy. The current concern is not corruption. Although there is an occasional scandal, corruption is clearly an exception. And Karen understood the differences between ethics in the public and the private sectors.
What is common and acceptable in a family business is nepotism and conflict of interest in government. Contemporary public cynicism is primarily a concern about extreme partisanship and the influence of money on elections. The question Karen had to answer was what, if anything, she could or would do to generate respect for the institutions and processes of government. How was she going to balance the need for representation and problem-solving?
Karen’s general answer was to represent her constituents when defining the agenda for policymaking and then to rely on evidence and expertise when developing responses to public concerns. This approach allowed her to be a responsible leader—in the community and in state government—by addressing the problems and opportunities faced by those who elected her. And she could be an effective leader by pursuing solutions that were relevant and feasible. Leadership for her was working with other officials—elected and appointed—to find practical ways of responding to the real needs of the people she represented.
The common traits of leadership, shared in the public and private sectors, are working with others to pursue evidence-based approaches to problems and opportunities. The unique dimension of public sector leadership is the role of representation, the demands of democracy.