Public Service Motivation and the Magic Leadership Hat

Sometimes it seems like a leader wears many hats: the manager hat, the coach hat, the counselor hat, the disciplinarian hat, the mediator hat, the visionary hat, the teammate hat, the goal-setter hat, the analyst hat or even the friend hat. Depending upon their specific title and responsibilities, some of these may apply more than others.

As public administrators we are trained to be generalists, but the skill set required to lead is specialized. While we may not specialize in one particular area, we know how to find and consult with those that do because of our ability to network. Networking, to some extent, requires the ability to strategize which lays the foundation for other tasks such as garnering resources, interacting with diverse groups or analyzing and synthesizing information when making decisions.

Wearing the leadership hat requires a little something extra that can’t be taught. A leader must inspire. Inspiring others means garnering support for one’s goals. Revered leaders of past and present have inspired the masses to act in ways that ultimately serve to further their individual goals.

Yet the ability and will to inspire do not inherently lend themselves to reverence. They can be characteristic of a demagogue. One can inspire and energize a population using his or her charisma. One can also inspire people to act in accordance with their agenda through the incitement of anger and fear. In the former example, the individual needs only superficial charm to initiate a following. In the latter, the prospective leader need only create a state of mild paranoia, allowing individuals’ fears to feed off one another.

If an individual’s words start group excitement while also meeting the skill set requirement, rest assured they wear the leadership hat. But do not be fooled: the leadership hat is not “one size fits all.”

At this point, you might be asking yourself “how will I know a leadership hat when I see one?”

Spotting a leadership hat is actually easier than you may think. Take the “outsider” candidates of the current presidential election. One candidate clearly has hat hair. The other candidate’s hair is clearly a hat.

Their words alone have kindled the embers of emerging anti-establishment sentiment. Yet, the strategies and motivations of each are of striking contrast and illustrate a disconcerting truth: effective leadership does not demand virtue. It can function devoid of accountability, integrity, transparency, professionalism or democratic values. In essence, effective leadership can exist without actually serving or responding to the needs of citizens which are hallmarks of democratic leadership. The concepts of effective leadership and democratic leadership, however, are not mutually exclusive. An effective leader does not necessarily have to be a democratic leader to be successful and a democratic leader isn’t necessarily effective by virtue of their principles.

Contrasting these candidates also allows for a better understanding of transformational and transactional leaders. One candidate is transformational, calling for a massive overhaul of our entire system of governance to give voice to the voiceless. He responds to the citizens in a collaborative, democratic fashion, highly valuing integrity. This candidate unabashedly displays his gray, disheveled hat hair – a tangible testament to valuing transparency and pragmatism.

The other candidate practices a rather authoritarian transactional leadership, removing the human element of interaction. He leads by giving orders and doling out rewards or punishment according to the level of adherence to said rules. This candidate also mobilizes and inspires, though this particular quality does not necessarily align with the tenets of transactional leadership. This man’s overstated hair, with all the superficiality, is also his hat.

Each candidate represents the incredible power of the leadership hat. Whether you want to save the world or whether you want to rule it, donning a leadership hat is the key to success. But as a future public servant, I strongly urge you to first consider your motivations.

Do you seek power to reign or do you seek it to serve others?


Submitted by Ashley Hudson, a graduate research assistant at Auburn University. Email: anh0043@auburn.edu.

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