Leadership In The Government Context

I spent my entire career working in local government. I did not pursue this career path by conscious choice but by the benefit of a political favor given to my father. I graduated from college with a Bachelor of Science in Education degree and was certified to teach at the secondary level. The only problem was that once I became certified I began to struggle with the concept of our long standing grading system. In my mind I felt that my “A” effort may be vastly different from your “A” effort, but both deserving of an “A”. Unfortunately in our traditional system “A” is considered a rigid 93-100. The philosophical struggle resulted in me not pursuing a teaching career in the Chicago school system.

I moved out of the house one month after I graduated and got a receptionists job at an insurance agency in downtown Chicago. I hated it. At the time I lived in Oak Park and would take the “L” to and from work. Every day as I was riding home I could hear Peggy Lee singing in my mind “Is That All There Is”. I was 24 and felt like my life was over. My dad knew how unhappy I was and one Friday night I got a call from him saying he had just spoken to Mayor Daley. I laughed and said something like “sure dad, and I just got off the phone with Robert Kennedy.” He assured me that he was not joking. He told me that he had written three letters to the Mayor about me (this was at the time when Daley was sick and spending a lot of time at his Michigan home). He said Daley apologized for not getting back to him but he had not received the first two letters. He told my dad to have me bring my resume to Tom Donovan at City Hall on Monday and that they would fix me up with something.  Why Daley did this for my dad is a subject of another blog, but on Tuesday I had a job with the Chicago Park District (CPD). That was the beginning of my 34 year career in local government.

I was fortunate to work in a large agency like the CPD. It gave me the opportunities move up the ranks in one place. I stayed there until I had no other choice but to leave in order to get an executive level position. Having worked in local government since 1974, I’ve seen many changes especially regarding how to lead in that environment. In the waning years of my career I heard over and over again that government should learn to operate more like a business. And although at times I have said the same thing, now in retirement, my attitude has changed. I still think fiscal responsibility is absolutely paramount for government agencies.  But now having had experiences in working in both the public and private sectors there is no question in my mind that government leaders work under vastly different constraints. In the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt government was perceived as the people’s savior especially with the onset of the social security system.  Today it is totally different.  Government has far more impacts on people’s lives than the private sector and because of that can easily become the focal point for people’s hostilities. More than ever government agencies are being scrutinized for every thing they do and bashing government is a common pastime both with citizenry and the press. And on a parallel track, government’s budgets are being slashed dramatically but expectations for government services have become greater and greater. It almost sounds like a no-win situation and strong leadership skills are critical in order to maneuver through these unique challenges.

Over the next few weeks this is what I will be thinking about as I prepare to teach a class in Leadership for the National Recreation and Park Association’s Directors School. This class has been part of the school’s curriculum for the past three years. I team teach the class with a brilliant man who was the former Director of Parks and Recreation for the city of San Carlos, California (and we won’t even get into the budget issues that state is facing). We’ve decided to initiate some changes to the session and narrow our focus to a few of many critical leadership issues and skills. We also decided  to add a section on leading in the government context,which I will present.  I will also focus on gender and leadership (surprise, surprise) and accountability – a skill that is virtually non-existent in today’s litigious society. I know I have some P & R people who read this blog, and so any insights you might have as I am thinking this through are always welcome. And for those not in P & R, if you have any thoughts feel free to share. There are many commonalities between the constraints of the private and public sectors as well as vast differences. We can all learn from one another. I will look forward to hearing from anyone who wants to share their thoughts.

2 thoughts on “Leadership In The Government Context

  1. Jan, I don’t have any specific thoughts at this time except to say that I hope that session is for the Year 2 folks!

    I have never had an interest in working in large cities but I can see from your experiences and Shamar from Cleveland Metroparks that it offers excellent training and room for advancement. For someone relatively new to the field working in a large department is a great first step.

    I can see from my supervisor who has to deal with the politics that it can completely wear you down to be constantly scrutanized and bashed. Those that are doing the bashing don’t need to provide solutions – they can freely provide misinformation and discontent but have no accountability. One question is – when is it time to step up and be public in not letting those folks get away with their agendas and the discontent it breeds?



    • That is a very tricky question. In my experience our job is not to confront those agendas but to continue to provide policy makers with the information they need to make decisions. There are always going to be people who only can see what they want and not the big picture, and sometimes policy makers will favor those agendas – it is part of what we have to live with. Our job is to build credibility so that the information and opinions we provide are considered very strongly in any decision. If we can do that then at times we will win, at times we will have to compromise and at times politics will totally prevail. That is just the nature of our business and why we are so different from the private sector. Unfortunately this piece will be added to the year one class on leadership – but you have given me some food for thought in terms of touching on it in my year 2 supervision class. Thanks, and please pass this along to so that other can feel free to comment as I think this through.


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