“I can’t do anything about that agency,” the government official said. “I don’t have authority over it.”
The statement reflects a primitive, fundamentally flawed management philosophy, for a number of reasons.
For one thing, it implies that one-way exercise of power is the only way government can function.
For another, it denies the speaker’s responsibility for outcomes he/she can’t control.
You can find the same kind of thinking in nongovernmental organizations.
In the real world, though, it is delusional for anyone in a position of authority to believe you make things happen as a continuing practice by ordering them done.
Organizations headed by such people tend to be circuses of hypocrisy and just-pretend. They become progressively less functional as they lose good people and gain a culture of fictional behaviors.
No one has all the answers, and smart leaders know how to spread authority around in the right places, and how to empower people to use it with pride to multiply quality results.
Conversely, people willing to be treated as lackeys pretend respect and compliance while they play hidden games that hollow out the operation.
You don’t dare question a dictatorial boss, but you don’t waste time and energy actually trying to carry out all of his/her stupid directives, either. Such bosses often see what they want to see, while they punish and humiliate those who don’t stay in line.
Bad bosses have bad bosses. When a power-obsessed incompetent is allowed to continue in place, it’s because someone agrees with the behavior, isn’t paying attention or is practicing avoidance or denial. The boss’s boss isn’t doing the job.
That is as true in the private sector as it is in public service. If you are elected or appointed to a position of power, it is because you are expected to get certain things done. That’s the responsibility part.
If you take your responsibility seriously, you equip yourself with the skills and practices you need to get the desired results or as close to those results as possible. So you build relationships, and you learn and respond to the motivations of other people in the environment.
You respect and understand how others see their authority and responsibility. You work creatively and persistently in the realm of the possible. You negotiate, giving and taking in at atmosphere of mutual dependency and respect.
That sounds a lot like project management. While “government as business” is in many ways a failed concept, there is significant value in seeing project management as politics.
The typical functional manager in business, industry or the nonprofit world generally has more formal authority than the typical political leader – and far more than the typical project manager.
What is common to all management roles, though, is the responsibility to achieve results through obtaining the constructive involvement and contributions of other people. What you can’t order into place, you must nurture into being.
Power needs responsibility.
Responsibility demands collaboration.
Collaboration must be earned.
Authority is dependent upon competence.