Academic journal article
By Walker, David M.
The Journal of Government Financial Management , Vol. 54, No. 4
The story of Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece is among the oldest surviving ancient Greek myths. In simple terms, it is a story about a journey into the unknown: Jason and a company of 50 heroes set out on a perilous voyage across uncharted seas to distant lands. Despite obstades and dangers of every sort, the Argonauts achieved their goal and returned home safely with their trophy in hand.
At another level, however, the story of Jason and the Argonauts involves ideas about leadership that are strikingly modern. Jason is a leader with a vision who does not accomplish his mission on his own. He has a diverse and talented crew on board that includes navigators, shipbuilders, astronomers and warriors, among others. Again and again, it is their teamwork that proves decisive in overcoming difficult challenges.
Jason's leadership skill is also an important element of the success of the Argonauts. It is, however, leadership based not on intimidation and control but on motivation, empowerment and teamwork that involves drawing on a range of knowledge, skills and abilities to achieve a common purpose. At crucial moments, Jason understands the need to allow others to do what they do best.
My favorite President, Theodore Roosevelt, summed up this leadership philosophy by saying, "The best executive is one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it." This quote, although it needs updating to reflect the increasingly significant contributions made by women, is still relevant.
It is important to understand that leadership differs fundamentally from management. Management tools come and go, but the principles of effective leadership are timeless. My personal definition of leadership is "getting things done with and through others."
Leaders have a responsibility to maximize value, including achieving outcome-based results, while managing risk. They have to balance the interests of all key stakeholders. Leaders must also look beyond the present and plan for the future.
In my view, it is leadership based on partnership, not dictatorship, that delivers real and lasting results for stakeholders, whether they are taxpayers, stockholders, customers or employees. Partnering for progress and for the mutual benefit of all is the objective.
The ancient Greeks' insights into leadership seem particularly relevant to today's world-particularly in the case of the federal government, which confronts a number of major challenges and emerging issues with serious implications for our future. Progress on these issues will take leadership that encourages teamwork internally and a willingness to partner externally with other government agencies, businesses and nonprofit entities.
For example, certain demographic trends are inevitable. During the next 50 years, the U.S. population is expected to grow by more than half, while
the ratio of workers to retirees is expected to decline dramatically. Most industrialized nations, including the United States, now face the prospect of caring for aging populations with longer life spans.
Largely because of the looming retirement of the baby boomers, skyrocketing health care costs and inadequate federal revenues, America now confronts a large and growing fiscal imbalance. Clearly, a day of reckoning is coming, and eventually all of government will feel its impact, even the Departments of Defense and Homeland security. Long-range budget simulations from my agency, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), and others show that, without meaningful changes, increasingly draconian decisions on spending and taxes will be required to balance the budget. Based on plausible assumptions, by 2040, the federal government could be reduced to doing little more than paying off interest on the national debt.
To effectively address these and other challenges, we must transform our government and better align it for the 21st century. …