New Skills for Complex Times

By: Lisa Beutler

The current round of Presidential debates has reignited an evaluation of government leadership.  While we hear occasional nods to “working across the aisle,” for the most part leadership is still portrayed as an individual pointing troops in the right direction, with managers then expertly executing plans as outlined.

In fact, such a narrow definition ignores the need for public administrators to be both leaders and managers.  And a little like Ginger Rogers dancing backwards in heels with Fred Astaire, they must do this in complex and uncertain times.  The boundaries of problem solving often exceed the jurisdiction of the manager and the ability to throw resources at concerns is limited.  This means collaborative skills need to be added to the list of public manager requirements. 

Academics O’Leary and Bingham have defined this skill set as the process of facilitating and operating in multi-organizational arrangements to solve problems that cannot be easily solved by single organizations.  In their article, co-authored with Yujin Choi, Teaching Collaborative Leadership:  Ideas and Lessons for the Field, they explain, “Collaborative means to co-labor, to achieve common goals, often working across boundaries and in multi-sector and multi-actor relationships. Collaboration typically is based on the value of reciprocity and can include the public.”

While this may all seem quite practical, the idea of adding yet another requirement to the long list of needed skills is overwhelming.  The key is not adding to but rethinking the role of the public administrator and reframing professional identity to match the complex third-party governance world.

O’Leary, Bingham and Choi explore how this reframing could occur.  Citing multiple academic sources and scholars Lester Salamon and Robert Agranoff, they explain, “Public managers and administrators need to combine many different disciplines; they need a synthesis of what we are learning not only in public affairs but also in political science, social psychology, organizational behavior, and communications.”

This approach also requires an undoing of much of what administrators have been TAUGHT to do.  They repeat Salamon’s assessment that “we train public administrators to function within a hierarchical bureaucracy, which is essentially a deductive process.”  Salamon describes this as managers starting with a theory of the policy problem, collecting information and evidence regarding different approaches, evaluating reliability, and making a considered judgment about how to advance the public good within the scope of their delegated authority.  He explains, in this paternalistic model,” those governed are asked to accept arguments from authority based on claims of superior technical expertise. The model depends upon a linear, top-down authority structure and the notion of a chain of command.”

Georgetown professor Robert Agranoff observes that in collaborative public management, knowledge is still the key.  He writes, “Knowledge is broader, deeper, and richer than data or information.  Knowledge is how humans combine information with experience and insight to do work: it is both a process and an outcome.”

In the new world of collaboration and organizational alignment, multiple managers and stakeholders must be involved in determining what decisions need to made, what relevant information, data, and science must be considered, decision rules; the role of the public, public knowledge, and values; and steps for implementation.  In this world, traditional approaches are modified, rather than added to.

In fairness, this shift creates many tensions. Administrators must work both inside and outside of traditional authority and manage professional and cultural diversity.  They must work with ambiguity.  They must move to thinking about results as needing to be based on win-win thinking.  And, perhaps most difficult is rethinking the use of power and final measures of results.

Moving to this new view also requires questioning the prevailing articulation of government leadership.  The vision of the iconic CEO taking the helm and righting the ship does not always deliver desired results.  Jim Collins’ book, ‘Good to Great,’ explores this in more depth.  Yet the myth of this old Jack Welch style leadership persists, in part due to marketing by the CEO’s themselves and our intuitive belief that the world works this way.

Moving forward requires a reframe, retool and retraining.  We can start by looking at our assumptions about problem solving and leadership.  We can also encourage administrators to educate on the need for a change in thinking.  We must also encourage our academic institutions to prepare current and new administrators for this evolving world.

Photos courtesy of and

One thought on “New Skills for Complex Times

  1. These are insightful comments on the need to develop collaborative skills – and the complexity of leading collaborative efforts.

    One of the most complex challenges is ‘finding the common ground’ among diverse stakeholders, as mentioned in the referenced paper on “Teaching Collaborative Leadership”. In many situations, finding the common ground involves clarifying and sharing a ‘common language’.

    Another good source – on how public and private sector leaders work together to solve problems and build a common language for collaboration – is “Megacommunities” by M. Gerencser, R. Van Lee, F. Napolitano and C. Kelly.


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