4 Keys to Civic Leadership

The word “leadership” often conjures up images of corporate CEOs and first-place runners. However, in a public policy and management context, leadership is about creating systems and structures that empower others and solve problems that may not be glamorous or high-profile, but make a significant difference in the quality of life of the people and communities you serve. Here are four keys to being an effective civic leader.

Listen and Engage


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“Engagement” is a popular buzzword in lots of fields these days, but it has always been the cornerstone of leadership in public policy. When you engage the community in the public management process, you participate in a form of experiential learning that informs the way you think and make decisions from then on. When the community feels that their voice has been heard, they are more likely to feel a sense of ownership in the programs and initiatives you create and manage, and more willing to accept the inevitable compromises required when decisions are made.

Seek Diversity

Without a proactive effort to include a variety of voices and perspectives, public policy tends to reflect the views of the most dominant constituent groups, to the exclusion of those who may be less vocal or engaged. The irony is that these smaller groups are often most seriously affected by the problems that civic leaders work to address. Encourage outreach to these communities through feedback tools and programs, and lead by example by actively soliciting input from contributors who might otherwise take a back seat.

Focus on Groups Before Individuals

It’s easy to rely on a few particularly charismatic or talented people to carry the weight of a project or initiative, but what happens when they move on to new opportunities? Long-term public management success comes from empowering groups and organizations, rather than focusing on individuals.

Invest in organizational structures and processes that empower the collective, no matter who is sitting in which position. Work to recognize and develop talent at all levels, so participants are able to make the best possible use of their strengths, and teams can pull from a wide range of skill sets and new contributors. This group approach also supports diversity and engagement, creating a positive feedback loop that can yield great results.

Think in Terms of Progress vs. Binaries


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The kinds of problems that civic leaders work to solve are sometimes referred to as “wicked problems,” or those that have a complex relationship to other problems and require a constant openness to shifting circumstances and objectives. One of the recommended strategies for dealing with wicked problems is to view solutions, not in terms of good or bad, but on a progress spectrum. It’s rare to find a solution that completely addresses a given problem to everyone’s satisfaction, especially with so many moving parts. Measure success on a sliding scale, and decide how much progress is sufficient, rather than holding out for perfection.

Excellence in civic leadership is about identifying, analyzing, and solving problems in a collaborative and inclusive way. By cultivating these skills, you will be on your way to making a meaningful difference in your community.

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