Powering Strong Communities

Three Perspectives on Leadership

Learning from Generals 

Rick Atkinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and military historian

How do you define a leader or leadership?

I think a leader is someone who has the capacity to persuade others to unite in pursuit of a common goal, to row the boat with purpose in the same direction.

What can leaders of civilian organizations/businesses learn from the leadership styles of military leaders?

Regardless of whether they wear military uniforms or not, successful leaders are worthy of study, and sometimes of imitation, if they demonstrate a capacity to unify an organization by causing individuals to act collectively.

Are there any leadership traits that are common across the Generals you have interacted with? If yes, what are they and what effect do they appear to have?

Most successful military leaders are distinguished by an indomitable will — a determination to achieve their mission at an acceptable cost. Some military leaders are soft-spoken, others are loud or brash. Regardless of individual styles, most evince an empathy for subordinates, even if they are demanding and driven. The best are willing to share hardships and risks with subordinates.

Are leadership strategies from military leaders more or less applicable to running local government/institutions than other types of businesses? Why?

Obviously in a military organization, a commander can be directive — ordering subordinates to do this or that. That sort of command leadership has limits in any civilian organization, and in a political democracy, even in a military unit, a wise, successful leader will take pains to make clear why something should be done. As George Washington wrote in 1777, "A people unused to restraint will not be drove. They must be led."

Are there drawbacks to having leaders make parallels between civilian and military leadership?

Sure, there's a hazard if a boss thinks he or she is George S. Patton. That sort of swagger doesn't play well in many organizations, including military organizations. There are more similarities than differences between good military leadership and good civilian leadership, but it's important to recognize that there indeed are differences.

Helping Each Other Grow

Troy Adams, P.E., general manager, Manitowoc Public Utilities, Wisconsin

How did you get into public power?

After I graduated with my engineering degree, I worked in the private sector. When I met my wife, her dad, who had been a lineworker for an investor-owned utility, was insistent that I look into working for a utility. He told me how utilities are so important to their communities, and always will be needed. An opportunity came up for an engineering manager at a utility where my wife had graduated high school, and it just so happened to be in a public power town. I couldn’t articulate why public power resonated with me at the time, but it did. I liked that it was an opportunity to know who you were servicing.

Two years after I started, the general manager and the city were not aligning, and inevitably they parted ways. Through that vacancy, I was promoted to be the GM – while there was still conflict that needed to be resolved. The city happened to be communicating regularly with the neighboring rural electric cooperative. So, I got hit with the question, “Why shouldn’t we sell the utility to the coop?”

I didn’t fully have the depth of what it meant to be public power. I called our state trade association, and they were incredibly helpful and pointed me to other public power leaders around the state to talk to who had run into similar challenges. It helped me get my head straight and quantify the value of public power before I presented to our city council about why they shouldn’t sell. I was able to go to the city council armed with facts, stories, and support from the public power community. We ended up turning it around and finding ways to create alignment and have successes that were mutually beneficial to the city and the utility.

I found out that public power is family. Everyone is willing to stop what they are doing to help out. It was a really powerful, foundational experience for me, and I have since tried to pay it forward.

What does it mean to be an effective public power leader?

Utilities, especially municipal utilities, generally don't spend time communicating with their communities: putting out social media, blogging, sharing stories, going to speak at local events. The way things used to be done, we just did our work and assumed that everyone would know that we were doing a good job. As I started talking to businesses and community leaders, I found people really didn't know what it meant to have a community-owned utility. I became passionate about sharing the public power story and what it means for a community to have public power. I spoke at everything that I could, about those values, and then allowed employees to go speak at any opportunity that they had, whatever connections they had, and talk about the utility. The idea that there are no shareholders and the value stream goes right back to the customers is a pretty powerful statement when you actually take a moment to talk about it with a customer or a stakeholder. For me, developing those relationships with the community and the city ended up being a really important part of being a successful public power leader, and being able to share the values of what public power is about made those relationships grow.

We put focus on developing employees. Whether that was holding leadership team book club or having some offsite outings, it helped to build the relationships within the team. During the pandemic, I joined Manitowoc Public Utilities as its GM. I was looking to do the same things to establish a culture that supported employee development, but it was much harder to connect in the same ways as before. Yet, you just need to take advantage of the opportunities to connect with employees and the community as they present themselves.

How do you expect the skills needed for public power leaders to change in the coming years?

Relationship building will always be a part of successful leadership – how you build those relationships will change as expectations change. What’s the foundation of a relationship? Communication and trust. If you want to break it down, you must always be clear and honest with your communications. There is never one thing that you do to build trust – it’s millions of little things. But you can do one thing that can be detrimental to trust that will tear it all down.

Looking to the future, the rate of change is discussed a lot, so leaders need to be effective with change management. That comes down to being able to communicate the "why," building a movement, and allowing people to play a role in that change (versus just tell them what to do). Inspiring others is a critical part of that. If people aren’t excited about being part of change, then you aren’t going to be successful in leading it.

Bringing it back to public power – I see future generations really wanting to connect with value. Employees aren’t looking for a job, they are looking to contribute. The fact that we have consumer-owners makes it easy for us to do good. Public power is a perfect career path for someone who connects with that value.

What can today’s leaders do to help identify and develop rising leaders in their organization or across the public power community?

A lot of times, the succession plan is limited to just an organizational chart and looking for the pathways where people are going to step up if there is a vacancy. But a succession plan is really something more. Short term, if someone walks out the door, you need business continuity. In the long term, the target is moving. You aren’t just looking to plug and play for the same positions that exist today. You need to look at the talent you have in your organization and map people to different opportunities. Give them support and the opportunity to develop before they are needed. Create a forward-looking plan, look at professional development and skills development.

Development of people doesn’t just have to be a manager to an employee, leaders should also encourage peer development. There are lots of opportunities for professional and peer development through APPA. Sending your employees to conferences is a great way to help them grow within their profession, develop skills, network, and meet others outside of their normal routine. You have to allow for the time for employees to engage and grow.

In a smaller organization, the same need to develop the bench exists. When you have fewer employees, you have fewer opportunities, but it doesn’t mean you can’t find opportunity for development – you may need to look to your state organization, or maybe with your community, such as through service organizations like the Rotary Club. Regardless of utility size, there are always opportunities to help employees grow if you are looking for them.

Restoring Trust in Public Service

Steve Wright, Inspired Public Service

Why emphasize the focus on improving public service leadership?

The data shows there is a dramatic decline in trust in government. If you go back to the 1960s to today, it’s a huge drop. As leaders in the public sector, we have a responsibility to do something about that. We could think about it as a small drop in the bucket, or, if everyone works on it, we could make a big difference.

What actions should public power leaders take to counter this decay?

Building a system around creating a culture of public service starts with mission, vision, and values. Once you incorporate public service into those pieces, working through creating clearer accountability for your measures that are included in your plan. Combo of defining outcomes in the best interest of public and building a culture internally that provides public service.

If you’re trying to create a system that focuses on what best serves the public interest, then you also need to provide incentives for employees to be a part of that. Part of that bargain is recognizing that many employees want to be really terrific. That means providing the things that they need — resources, training, etc. — to make them great at their core competencies. It’s about Maslow’s Hierarchy. Generally, we are well off enough today that people are looking for meaning and purpose in life. And in public power, we provide jobs that have real meaning and purpose. We need to take advantage of that as a tremendous motivational tool for our employees.

What leadership traits embody “inspired public service”?

There are many that could be there. What I find most powerful are trustworthiness and stewardship. Trust embodies confidence and integrity. Put those together, and you get a lot of the key things. Those are examples, but there needs to be a conversation around what you and your organization believe are the key values you want to see exhibited and that you believe bring out the public service ethic.

What are effective ways to develop leaders with these traits, or identify those who could build on them?

Once you have defined what your organization needs to serve the public interest, you then have to create the structure and train to it. If you have a set of values, then one of the things I encourage is to make personnel decisions based on those values. You may have someone apply who is good from a technical standpoint, but they may not share the values that you think are necessary. You could train on important aspects of the values, such as how to get personal accountability, or you could provide training to build good competency into great competency.

If you tell people what you want, they may be born with the value or they may be able to be trained to it. But there may be some people who just don’t share the value. And if that's the case, then it's important to recognize that early on.

Surround people with the concept of providing great public service. Give them every opportunity to succeed by showing them what it means to be successful in the organization. That includes connecting them with actual constituents that benefit from the public service focus. For example, you can bring in the people from the industrial plant that exists in your community because of your low cost, explaining this connects their work to meaning and purpose.

What else would you want public power leaders to know?

There’s a third value that is applicable to any public to any public sector organization — operational excellence. Unfortunately, in our society, there is a belief that the public sector cannot operate efficiently and effectively, but I think that’s wrong. That is a cultural perspective. But it means we have to be way better than average to be recognized for providing great service.

Public power has a history of being very good in providing low rates and higher reliability. That doesn’t mean we can rest on your laurels. You have to be looking for opportunities to adopt new ways of doing things, such as deploying new technology, to maintain operational excellence.

As you make progress, you are able to recruit and retain better employees, because they become more excited to work there. Just get moving, it will help to address the recruitment and retention issues. In some cases, we are not going to be able to compete on pay. We have to play to our strengths. If it turns out that pay is not our strength, that doesn't mean we give up, it means that we allow employees to see how important their work is and how it's going to make a real positive difference in our community.