Academic journal article The Public Manager

Leaders and Stories: Growing the Next Generation, Conveying Values, and Shaping Character

Academic journal article The Public Manager

Leaders and Stories: Growing the Next Generation, Conveying Values, and Shaping Character

Article excerpt

How senior government practitioners can use their experience and leadership stories as mentors, coaches, teachers, and exemplars to help grow other leaders.

A leadership generation in the public service will shortly pass the baton, but few freshly-prepared leaders are ready to run the next leg of the race. Coincident with a new administration, well over one-half of today's senior federal executives are ready to begin the next phase of their lives. Retirement projections are notoriously imprecise. Yet, according to the Office of Personnel Management's statistics and historical patterns, two of three senior executives will likely leave federal service in the next five years. Many of these current leaders are in the very agencies where policy and program changes are on the nation's agenda.

This is the "quiet crisis" of leadership that Warren Bennis calls perhaps the least understood crisis of our times, occurring in all sectors of the developed world. Bennis maintains that we don't yet know what the effect will be as this generation of leaders moves on, nor do we really know how to grow a next generation of leaders who need new capabilities and a deeper reflection of enduring character qualities for what Peter Drucker calls a "time of great change."

Despite the widespread acknowledgment of this pending leadership crisis, we do know that far too few government agencies have prepared themselves or their future leaders for succession or for these unprecedented changes. We also know two things that can be of immediate value in preparing the next generation of public service leaders, but only if acted upon.

The Lessons of Example and Experience

First, we know through benchmarking, that in the organizations that have a track record for growing leaders of character and capability, it is senior leaders, themselves (not the training shops or human resources offices), who assume the responsibility for preparing the next generation.

Second, we know that leaders are grown not by the lessons of the "classroom" but by the lessons of experience--lessons gleaned from challenging and varied job experiences and from significant relationships built with senior leaders (both good and bad). It is through these impact experiences and significant relationships that practical leadership capability is learned and where character is observed and shaped in the crucible of reality.

These senior leaders that beget other leaders play a role of "exemplar," of "coach," of "mentor," and even of "teacher." They give their time and wisdom to help make meaning and learning out of experience and observation.'

We also know that senior leaders in the "best practice organizations have beneficially employed at least one common thread that ties together these two absolutely fundamental principles: the lessons of experience and significant relationships with senior leaders.


Most of us can remember lying in bed and having an older person read us a bedtime story. We were whisked away to places we could only dream of. Or we may remember sitting around a table after a meal and listening to our parents or grandparents tell stories that helped us understand a bit more about who they were and where our family came from and what we believed in. One of the great joys of growing older (yes, there are some) is sharing these stories with the next generation that hasn't heard them.

There is no doubt about it, stories are both heart warming and memorable. But perhaps what we don't understand is why we are able to remember favorite stories so well and why they are one of the most useful tools for leaders to have in their tool kits.

In my work with leaders of all stripes and in almost every government organization, I have come to the conclusion that many senior executives do not appreciate either their responsibilities or their capabilities to help grow the next generation. …

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