6 Traits of Successful Government Leaders

What you can learn from Government Technology’s annual Top 25 awards.

It’s Top 25 time. No, not an NCAA basketball poll or a Ryan Seacreast-hosted music chart. But Government Technology’s Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers issue.

This is honestly my favorite issue of the year. You get to hear the unsung stories of great government leaders across the U.S. (and the globe).

Luckily, over the years, I’ve gotten to know many of the winners of this award (and it must have been an error but I somehow won the award in 2010). There’s a number of key traits these leaders have, and I thought I’d share what they are for those individuals aspiring to make the list next year.

1. Cutting Edge of Technology — One common theme you’ll find from the winners is that they are on the cutting edge of technology. They aren’t afraid of being the “first” agency leading the way and experimenting with new uses. These are the leaders who are trailblazing how social media could be used in emergencies, QR codes for emergency management and how cloud computing can transform work.

2. Always Growing — When you look at the career paths of these leaders, they’re never stagnant; they never stand still. They are not the types that stay in the same job for 30 years. They take stretch opportunities within their agency, move jobs across departments (economic development to CIO to program offices), and work across jurisdiction lines (federal, state and local).

3. They Are Creators — In addition to senior IT executives, you’ll find a lot of founders and co-founders in the Top 25 through the years. Whether the creators of associations like CrisisCommons or Code for America or founders of companies like SeeClickFix, the common thread is they took an idea that could improve or help government to reality. From zero users and no full-time staff to large growing organizations impacting thousands of lives, these founders made it happen. Have an idea you want to exist? Start working on it.

4. Build Great Teams —
Yes, the award often goes to an individual, but if you ask any one of the winners, they’ll quickly highlight the work of their team. They know how to build great teams internally as well as coalitions needed to pull off complex projects. You know a good leader when you meet his or her team members and they’ve followed the leader to multiple jobs across agencies and locations. That’s the sign of a true leader who knows how to grow people.

5. Curious — As the Bob Dylan line goes, “He not busy being born is busy dying.” When meeting many of the winners, I’m truly impressed with their curiosity. They are interested in new ideas, new people and are always asking me, “Who is doing the most interesting work in government?” They are not afraid to step out of their comfort zone and often show up at local TEDx events, hackathons and university public policy initiatives. They want to learn new ideas to bring back to their office.

6. They Don’t Stop — For this article, I reviewed the list of winners of the Top 25 award for the last five years. Most of these folks are doing even more impressive work in 2014 than when they won the award. Bryan Sivak went from working as Maryland’s first chief innovation officer to become CTO of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, while Aneesh Chopra went from leading Virginia’s IT to become the first White House CTO and run for lieutenant governor. Successful people do not rest on their laurels but use the awards to push new ideas and actions forward.

So how are you doing on these six traits? Hopefully you’ll continue to improve these skills and we’ll see you next year on the Top 25 list.


Miriam Jones is chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines. She joined e.Republic in 2000 as an editor of Converge magazine.