My favorite definition of leadership comes from Warren Bennis: "Leadership is a function of knowing yourself, having a vision that is well communicated, building trust among colleagues, and taking effective action to realize your own leadership potential."

But I must add to this, borrowing from John C. Maxwell, who simply stated, "Leadership is influence -- nothing more, nothing less."

Followers are influenced by leaders either by a carrot or stick, or by something better; something they believe in -- vision. There are good leaders and bad leaders, there are Stalins and Hitlers as there are Roosevelts and Churchills. Each had a vision -- good or evil -- and influence over others, -- whether by trust or coercion. Bennis' definition of leadership encompasses traits such as "vision, communication, trust and effective action."

These are critical traits, for a leader must have a defined vision of what needs to be achieved, communicate it comprehensibly to others so they are inclined to share it -- and have the trust of colleagues that they have the skills necessary to realize the vision -- and can deliver it.

These traits could be further defined to include practicality, realism, creativity, innovation, technical competence, human compassion and understanding, integrity, faith, intelligence, etc. Therefore, leadership is multidimensional -- it requires several traits rolled into one individual.

Management is the art of how to do something well. Or to quote Bennis again, "Managers are people who do the things right and leaders are people who do the right thing." We all know managers -- they make sure account ledgers are correct and books are balanced; they ensure the buses run on time; they make sure 911 calls are answered in x number of minutes, etc. We need managers.

But leaders challenge the status quo through innovation and energize people looking out to the future. Leaders see opportunities that can make an organization perform better rather than making an organization meet stated metrics. Most importantly, leaders can get a reticent organization to adopt a new direction or change how it does business to achieve better performance and even change the culture of an organization.

Changing Politics and Culture

All leaders at their level or organizational sphere need to understand the environment (internal and external) in order to exert influence and change the organizational behavior to a desired outcome. This is where it all comes together, where leadership success or failure occurs.

The word politics is often perceived as dirty. It invokes a sense of distrust, self-serving actions for an individual or specific group's gain, and conjures up images of dishonest politicians. The official definition is "the process and conduct of decision-making for groups."

Politics is a very basic human characteristic, and one can see politics being played out in groups or organizations. The power or ability to impose one's will on another is a key tenet of politics -- it is sought and used to make decisions that favor a particular individual or group, or in plainer text, those who get to make the rules. The key here is that organizations are collections of humans, each of whom has individual needs and wants, and vie for decision-making power that suits their own objectives.

Organizations compete with other organizations for power, prestige, influence and resources. So while many may scoff at politics, it is simply human nature; to be an effective leader, one must understand both internal and external politics that affect an organization, particularly who the key stakeholders are. This is a particularly important consideration in government where power is diffused through law and government structures, and where there is a lack of market forces. This environment requires greater attention to coalition-building and assessing the effects of change on an organization in which internal sub-groups and external interest groups have a stake. Attempting change without lining up support--or power--can bring about failure or other unintended consequences.

Leaders have an important role in forming and changing organizational culture in reaction or in anticipation to a changing environment. Organizations and their members are survivalists and must successfully adapt to a constantly changing environment. Making a bad decision can have disastrous consequences for both in terms of survival or status.

I know this sounds fairly Darwinian, but one of the most perplexing questions I have continually asked myself throughout my career is, "Why are organizations and their members incredibly resistant to change, even though the change is well thought out, rational and beneficial?" Perhaps I thought they debated and vetted the change internally first before blindly accepting it; perhaps this is a good idea to simply avoid a bad decision, or change for the worse, which would threaten its survival.

Unique Executive

So now that we've covered leadership, management, politics and culture -- how do these relate to public-sector leaders and CIOs? As I said before, public-sector organizations are designed to operate in a diffuse power environment, and market forces don't readily apply to the public-sector environment as they do in the private sector, though political forces are very key to public-sector environments.

After all, government makes rules for all of us, and therefore is subject to intense political forces. Bureaucracies are somewhat constrained by checks and balances coming from multiple oversight bodies, media attention and numerous rules that guide their mission and power, and tend to change more gradually than their private-sector counterparts. Though in rare events such as war or depression, strong political forces can produce rapid and efficient change.

Unlike their private-sector counterparts, public-sector leaders do not receive handsome rewards for leading rapid change; in fact, one may say they are rewarded for slow change. That makes their jobs more interesting and challenging in affecting their vision because they must convince a diverse set of stakeholders to support them in that vision and garner their help to achieve it.

CIOs are unique executives -- they make their living by introducing technology to an organization that requires them to be lead change agents since technology almost always leads to a change in business processes. CIOs must earn the trust of their leadership and peers in their ability to create an organization capable of delivering key technology systems.

Through this trust they can garner more support to introduce new systems by being meticulous in how they are affecting organizational culture. A CIO who cannot deliver technology effectively to his or her key customers (i.e., police, fire, transportation, etc.) will not be trusted, and therefore will be ineffective. Like all leaders, CIOs must assess their own organization and environment, and change it to deliver key systems.

A CIO in the public sector is like his peers (CFOs, police chiefs, etc.) -- a member of a team with a specific role. As a team member, he or she must be trusted to deliver. I know this sounds basic, but sometimes delivering -- much as a CEO delivers shareholder value -- requires a great deal of leadership.

A CIO is part of a team and must work as a trusted member of his or her organization's senior management team, and in full alignment with the secretary. While most outsourcing engagements in the private sector are done rapidly, implementation of the Maryland Department of Transportation's (MDOT's) standardized network and communications system took about three and a half years. The additional time was needed to build the support in a diffuse power environment of a large government organization. The outcome, however, was the same.

One of my favorite comments on the project to create a standardized network and communications system was when the capital planning director, a very seasoned and well respected individual, came to me and said, "Whew, you know you really took us [MDOT] to the brink on this one, I had my doubts we would get through, but you and the CFO seemed to know just when to pull back and push forward. In the end, we would never have achieved this any other way -- thanks."

Alisoun Moore  |  Contributing Writer