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ATD Blog

Federal Leaders Need More Opportunity for Inner Development

Friday, August 28, 2020

Federal leaders want to increase the performance of those they lead but many don’t know how to do so. Teaching them to fill out proper annual evaluation and performance improvement forms is not enough. It takes much more.

When Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, was asked whether Level 5 leaders are born or can be developed, he said there is no chance to reach Level 5 unless the aspiring leader engages in “inner development.” So, what is inner development?

We know it when we experience it in the behavior of others. When I asked federal leaders to identify the behaviors that induced them to give their unconditioned energy to a boss, they always identified the same behaviors: They helped me develop; had my back; empowered me and allowed me to fail; listened; accepted my advice and respected me. They engaged intellectually, and, more importantly, emotionally with me.

The inner development of a leader described by Bill George in Truth North is a shift from “I” to “we;” a change in focus from the leader’s success as an individual to a genuine concern for the mutual development and achievement of the group.

The data is clear. A we workforce—one where the leader is engaged with the led and the led with each other—is far more productive. Gallup has discovered work units in the top quartile of employee engagement outperformed those in the bottom by 21 percent in productivity. In addition, they saw a decrease of 37 percent in absenteeism and a 48 percent decrease in safety accidents.

Gallup found that 70 percent of variance in team level engagement is based on the leader. This is mirrored by the finding of the Partnership for Public Service that the key driver of employee engagement is effective leadership.


Why is it so difficult for federal leaders to emulate that which they so admire, when the data shows it is so necessary for success?

Inner development demands dedicated time and focused attention in a fast-paced work environment. For example, it requires the time and courage to engage in self-reflection to define true purpose and the decision to live it, and challenges whether habitual reactions to situations continue to be effective. A leader must learn whether perception of the quality of relationships with those they leads lines up with the employees’ perception of their leader, identify the specific actions they may take to create a workplace where it is safe to say, “I don’t know,” coupled with the willingness to ask for help, and cultivate the humility to identify and remove personal barriers to do what needs to be done.

A leader’s inner development also requires an agency investment. Most leaders need a group learning experience built on trust and mutual respect, where they are supported by colleagues as they unlearn old behaviors, identify new desired behaviors, and take one step forward and two steps back. They need to experience their failures as learning experiences and learn to regularly celebrate success. They need the confidence of practiced experience to apply what they learn in their workplace.


Federal-sector leaders want the opportunity for inner development to increase productivity.

They recognize that accumulating power and directing others is not sufficient to inspire knowledge workers to engage with each other to solve problems for which there is no known answer.

Those they lead are entitled to the best possible quality of leadership, and the public demands better results. It is time to invest in the inner development of federal-sector leaders.

About the Author

Robert Tobias teaches courses in public sector leadership in the Key Executive Leadership Programs. He also teaches facilitation and team development, conflict management and alternative dispute resolution, and managing labor management relations. Finally, he is the Director of the Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation which brings together members of Congress, political appointees, career federal executives, union leaders, consultants, and academics for the purpose of resolving difficult public policy implementation issues. President Clinton nominated and the Senate confirmed him for a five-year term as a member of the Internal Revenue Service Oversight Board. Tobias received the Paul P. Van Riper Award from the American Society for Public Administration “In recognition of his outstanding contributions to both the theory and practice of public administration” and the Warner Stockberger award from the International Public Management Association for Human Resources for “outstanding contributions in the field of public sector personnel management at the federal level.” He has also been elected as a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. Tobias was selected by Thomas Ridge, secretary, Department of Homeland Security, and Kay Coles James, director, Office of Personnel Management to the Human Resource Management System Senior Review Advisory Committee.

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