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April 07, 2008
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The Clerks Shall Inherit the Earth

Every bureaucracy, large or small, urban or rural, wealthy or financially strapped, shares certain basic characteristics. One of these is the presence of transactions. Bureaucracies, by definition, are full of rules, and adhering to the rules involves processes, steps, chains of command, forms to fill out, signatures or stamps to acquire, fees to be paid and other activities of which most of the HR Doctor readers are very aware.  

Most employees of a public bureaucracy, in fact, owe their jobs to the requirements to administer these processes and transactions. Many employees find comfort in the routines, the books of rules and the security of knowing that the scope of their decision making may be rather limited.

On the other hand, the few and perhaps the brave or the foolhardy, elected officials and top appointees in public agencies are hired not to spend their time focusing on tactical day-to-day transactions. Rather, these people are there to bring transformational leadership to the organization. They are the champions of creating compelling visions of the future and of setting the strategic direction for the future evolution of public service in their community.

This is not a job for people who seek comfort in counting the number of paper clips per box. These may be, in fact, the leaders whose jobs lack job security in the form of union contract provisions or civil service rules. They are the ones who serve “at the pleasure” of the voters or of other leaders in the agency. 

The most exciting leaders are the ones who are truly visionary and enjoy spending their working time looking at the future and how it could be shaped by their day-to-day work.

For transformational leaders, the freedom to innovate and see the results of their work has a mega-effect on the community and is the greatest source of job joy. This comes not from the security of books of rules, but from the challenge and the opportunity to write the rulebook itself, or even discard the book in favor of interactive video, Web links and more.

The organization that has an overdose of transactional employees but a critical shortage of those who have strategic vision and the charisma to implement that vision is in trouble from the start. Major changes such as revenue reductions, otherwise known as tax revolts, new technologies and confronting new enemies or challenges at the national or the local level, requires top leaders who focus on transformation not tactics. 

Remember President John Kennedy’s compelling call, in 1961, for a national commitment to landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth by the end of the decade? What if he had instead issued a challenge to create millions of pages of technical schematics, hire tens of thousands of new government employees and spend hundreds of billions of dollars?  The result would not have been a rallying of the nation and a call to action, but rather a call to yawning on a national scale.

On the other hand, no matter how charismatic the leader is, that person’s impressive vision requires painstaking work “on the ground” to achieve the results. People who “transact” have an essential place in making progress in the 21st century, just as the top visionary leaders do. They are a team, whether they think of themselves that way or not.

In government, it is particularly sad to see elected or appointed officials emerge as the counters of beans and the preservers of all that is safely hidden behind rules.

The flip side is equally true: It is a tragic waste to see a person who has much to offer as a leader and an inspiration to others being confined to a role which does not let them fulfill their potential. Albert Einstein arguably did his greatest works in theoretical physics while he was a junior clerk in a Swiss government patent office. Imagine what the world would have missed if his most crowning achievement in a long life had been a promotion to senior clerk.

The world of public service needs both transformers and transactors. It also needs the hybrids who can emerge when opportunities flow to transaction experts and when visionary elected officials are brought a bit closer to earth by having experiences rooted in reality.

My favorite city manager, Robert Payton of Miramar, Fla., began his career as the man riding at the back end of a garbage truck. Appreciating that kind of background and experience makes it possible to comingle the risk-taking mind of a visionary with the practical reality of a transaction expert.

The leader with this amazing combination can reshape a community and create a lasting legacy. The roughly 87,000 units of government in the United States increasingly need that kind of combination. The clerks truly will inherit the earth, and they will do it soon if the visionary leaders become extinct. We don’t need to help that process along.

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •



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