Commentary: Government Leadership Skills Uniquely Favor Women

The “soft skills” characteristics that women bring to the challenges in government are a distinct advantage for our gender.

by Shell Culp, Techwire / August 30, 2017
Government Technology

To gain perspective on the survey about women in leadership, Techwire solicited this commentary from Shell Culp of Sacramento. Culp, a senior adviser for the Center for Digital Government, is a former state agency information officer in California and remains active in the sector. Her areas of expertise include IT project management, health and human services IT, Medicaid IT architecture policy, open data, interoperability, organization change management and performance management.

It’s good news that most of the survey respondents would recommend public sector to other women as a career choice.  The public sector is a complex organism that is challenging to maneuver in many ways not seen in the private sector. Nevertheless, the skills and traits of leaders that our public sector needs uniquely favor women — the “soft skills” characteristics that women bring to the challenge are a distinct advantage for our gender. Indeed, a Korn Ferry study last year showed that women outperformed men in several key areas, including: emotional self-awareness, demonstrating empathy consistently, positive outlook, coaching and mentoring, influence, inspirational leadership, conflict management, organizational awareness, adaptability, teamwork and achievement orientation. This strongly suggests that employers across both public and private sectors should be recruiting more women to the workplace, and to leadership positions specifically.

Writing in Forbes, contributor Glenn Llopis observed that women leaders understand survival, renewal and reinvention: “They have grit and are not afraid to fight for what they believe in or an opportunity to achieve something of significance. They believe in what they stand for, but that doesn’t mean they won’t put their ideas and ideals to the test. For them, doing more with less is simply a matter of knowing how to strategically activate those around them.”

The key is harnessing those skills and abilities in ways that advance strategic objectives needed for our future, but a number of forces may make realizing visions increasingly elusive for both the public and the private sectors, regardless of gender. A nearly obsessive near-term focus on administrative operations prevents leadership from developing a vision of the end game and then pragmatically executing on that vision. The “revolving door” at the top of organizations seems to be a factor here — my sense is that it creates a fair amount of frustration for subordinate leadership in their desire to drive toward the strategic goal that may span multiple chief executives. While patience may be a virtue in this regard, there seems to be precious little patience for the “long game.”

Technology appears to be a factor, as well. As we move toward more automation and faster cycle times, are we accelerating our world in ways that may be detrimental to the visioning and the end goal? A colleague shared a passage from Yuval Noah Harari’s book Homo Deus — A Brief History of Tomorrow that spoke to her: "Precisely because technology is moving so fast, and parliaments and dictators alike are overwhelmed by data they cannot process quickly enough, present-day politicians are thinking on a far smaller scale than their predecessors a century ago. Consequently in the early twenty-first century politics is bereft of grand visions. Government has become mere administration. It manages the country, but it no longer leads it. Government ensures that teachers are paid on time and sewage systems don't overflow, but it has no idea where the country will be in twenty years."

Regardless of gender, our leaders of tomorrow in the public sector must be able to see and set the strategy, and tenaciously execute on that strategy.

In one of his prolific articles, Daniel Goleman (author of the book Emotional Intelligence, and many others on leadership) suggests, “What makes leaders successful today may not work so well in the future. So it’s not just the right skills, but the ability to master new ones that will count.” He suggests that characteristics of leaders of the future will need:

  • Motivation — in particular, beyond ambition for themselves, embracing greater goals and putting in the time and work to continually improve their own performance. 
  • Curiosityopenness to new experiences and information, and an eagerness for feedback on how they are doing — including their own strengths and areas to improve.
  • Engagement — leadership by spreading enthusiasm for a persuasive vision, the ability to connect with people emotionally and logically, and a passion for what they do.
  • Determination — being able to battle toward difficult goals, take on tough challenges, and recover quickly from setbacks.

The world is increasingly a difficult place to lead, and it is unlikely that we can make it easier. We need leaders with a combination of skills, abilities, and characteristics, regardless of gender, that are suited to the task of developing strategic vision, adapting execution, and inspiring others to help to take on the challenges of the public sector. With so many innate leadership characteristics, women are guaranteed to be a part of that team.

This story was originally published by Techwire, a publication of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company.