A KLC core principle is “leadership is an activity, not a position” and we often talk about how authority and leadership are two distinct things.
But what would be possible if Kansas elected and appointed officials were better equipped to lead from their role in the public arena?
In late September, over 40 public officials from across the state gathered at KLC for the inaugural Leadership in Public Service Authority Lab. This day-long workshop was created to build capacity for exercising leadership in the public arena.
Early in the day, facilitators asked public officials to line up at the back of Konza Town Hall, placing themselves on a spectrum, from those who make decisions solely on the opinions of constituents, to those who make decisions through a collaborative process. This activity was meant to elevate nuance and sparked lively, even contentious conversation among participants. There is no playbook for exercising leadership from a role of authority. Participants largely agreed there are times as a public official when one must make an unpopular decision for the common good. Part of exercising leadership is disappointing people at a rate they can tolerate.
To build capacity for leadership as a public official, much of the day was spent in “the lab.” Participants were given space to experiment and apply the following five ideas from the KLC framework to a challenge in their role.
Understanding Process Challenges
Process challenges are issues or barriers with how people work together. The problems behind “the problem” require public officials to imagine new ways of presenting information or working with people in the midst of uncertainty. Authority figures exercise leadership in the public arena when they elevate patterns, build relationships and gather good information to create trustworthy ways forward.
Start Where They Are
Whether it be engaging with constituents or elected and appointed colleagues, public officials often find themselves needing to inspire and mobilize others to create change. There are systemic pressures and patterns which cause individuals to engage in specific ways, so mobilizing people starts with getting curious about their values, loyalties and losses.
Choose Among Competing Values
Public servants are asked to make countless decisions and sometimes those choices involve deciding between two things they deeply care about. Consciously choosing one value over another doesn’t particularly feel good. But it is necessary if you want to mobilize others to take on tough challenges in the civic arena.
Give the Work Back
Public officials experience pressure to solve the toughest problems. Systems are built to push work to authority. It takes practice, but giving the work back and helping others navigate change and loss is at the root of adaptive work. Leadership as an authority figure isn’t doing all the work, but inviting others to play an active role as well.
Work Across Factions
It is easier to involve people we know or who operate in a similar way to us in a collaborative process, but that doesn’t bring all the necessary voices to the table. Working across factions as a public official is a way to find common ground about purpose rather than strategy or tactics. A tool for working across factions is to ask powerful questions as a means to energize and connect with people who think differently than you do.
Participants broke into small groups to discuss these five ideas through the lens of their challenges. By late afternoon the officials designed one or more experiments drawing from one of these five ideas to bring back to their challenge.
We concluded the day with public officials getting on the balcony to discuss what makes it hard to leverage these five KLC ideas in their position. A common theme emerged: officials experience pressure to be experts, make fast decisions and generate quick positive change. But technical fixes to adaptive challenges are only a bandaid. In an effort to make progress on an adaptive challenge in their role, participants created a set of experiments to test out in their sphere of influence.
KLC brought together leaders from every walk of life who wanted to do the best they could for their communities. I know we are Kansas-strong because we are all sitting at the same table together.
KLC is committed to supporting and equipping elected and appointed officials to make progress on the toughest challenges in our communities.
Are you an elected or appointed official? Add your contact information to our mailing list and stay tuned for more Leadership in Public Service offerings! We will host our final 2022 Space to Talk virtual gathering for public officials on Thursday, December 15 over the Noon hour.
This workshop was the neutral territory for public officials to come together and navigate how we can use our authority to garner more buy-in to do good work.