Three Steps to a Leadership Revival’

In a recent NY Times column David Brooks offers a simple three-step path to high quality government leadership that applies to leadership everywhere, particularly in nonprofit organizations.

It’s not complicated.   No seminars, conferences or books are needed. It’s simply mentoring, awareness and renunciation.

He is unusually optimistic, convinced that these steps can lead to a needed “Leadership Revival” in the public sector. “The quality of people is high,” he writes, even though he thinks the quality of government leadership is low right now.   He takes it even further – “We live in a nation of good people.”

I believe that. Living in the Washington DC area for over 40 years, surrounded by government workers and leaders, I’ve seen it. This is especially true for those in the nonprofit organizations and faith communities that I know best.

For the most part people who work for the government and nonprofit organizations are good, well-intentioned, high quality people, as Brooks puts it.

He believes that with these three steps they can become high quality leaders.

First, he writes, “apprentice yourself to a master craftsman.”   This takes mentoring to a higher level.

The essentials for quality leadership can only be acquired from relationships where one learns from “imitation and experience.”

 He explains, “you will not be effective in public life unless you find a wise old person who will teach you the tricks of the trade, hour after hour, side by side.”

After leading training seminars on how to be a good mentor I’ve come to believe that the equally important question is how to find a good mentor.

Only a few leaders in the groups I’ve worked with have had a formal, intentional, mentoring relationship of the kind that Brooks describes.

Second, he advises leaders to take a break, get away from their assignments for a few days or an extended sabbatical.

Go far enough away so that you become, as he suggests, “an alien in a strange land.”

 High quality leadership requires awareness of how the rest of the world lives.   It has to be experienced – “the smell of the street, tinges of anger and hope and aspiration.”

I’ve heard pastors talk about the value of taking sabbaticals to visit other churches to experience what it’s like for laity in the pews.

When I began to serve in an African American community I quickly learned what it feels like to be in the minority.

I never thought about what it is like to be white until I served in a Black community.

There is a tendency for leaders to become trapped inside their own frames of reference.

Brooks writes that such a “reality bath” gives you “foreign eyes, to see the contours of your own reality more clearly.”

Third – to be effective, public sector leaders must be committed to a cause more important than their own careers.

Brooks assumes that they are in it for something more than the money.

This is especially true for nonprofit and faith community leaders.

When you lose sight of the compelling vision that inspired you in the first place the quality of leadership suffers.

High quality leaders learn to become, in his words, “masters of renunciation,” saying “a hundred Nos for the sake of an overwhelming Yes.”

Mentoring, awareness and renunciation are steps on the path to leadership excellence.

Brooks isn’t sure these ideas will “improve the quality of the nation’s leadership, but” as he concludes, “something has to.”


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