DorobekInsider: Leadership or management — that is the question?

Monday - 8/24/2009, 2:34pm EDT

Does the government need leadership? Or better management? And where should the focus be?

I write a monthly column in AFCEA’s Signal magazine. My column in the August issue is headlined:

Trite But True: It All Comes Down to Leadership
Good leadership is transformational and is different from management

In the column, I note that I did a Amazon.com search for books about leadership, and it probably will not surprise anyone that my search came up with 348,433 hits. So on one level, we understand it—leadership is important. And I went on to tell the story about EPA’s Jeremy Ames, who did the first government open contest — in this case, for people who created a public service announcement around radon gas. (See the videos from here.) And I noted in the column that the great thing about the videos is that then EPA CIO Molly O’Neill and then EPA Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock didn’t know it was going on. My conclusion was that was a demonstration of transformation at EPA — the fact that people felt safe enough to try something out that could change the way the organization does business — it seems very powerful to me.

As I said, you can read the full column here.

Alan Balutis [PDF bio], the director and distinguished fellow for Cisco’s Internet Business Solutions Group, sent me a note soon after that column was published in which he asked if he could take exception to my column. I told him I was thrilled that the column spurred a discussion — and, in fact, we will start that discussion — Allan gets to disagree with me publicly Tuesday at 10a ET on Federal News Radio 1500 AM’s Government IT Solutions Spotlight… and in the October issue of Signal magazine.

UPDATE: Federal News Radio 1500 AM’s Government IT Solutions Spotlight program with Balutis is now posted online. You can hear the conversation here.

His arguement: There is way too much focus on leadership — and not nearly enough focus on management. To that end, Balutis did an Amazon.com search about management and found 105,818 hits – less than a third of those on leadership.

As government programs and agencies today have become more complex, the ability to make them work has diminished. As we review the government landscape today, it is littered with failures: FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina, the Food and Drug Administration’s inability to stop dangerous foods from reaching dining tables, the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s not keeping lead-painted toys out of stores, the collapse of financial markets, outrageous Ponzi schemes, and on and on. Are these failures of leadership? There might be an element of that. But, more likely, they are failures of management; they are failures to execute.

We’ll continue this conversation tomorrow morning, and while I don’t think Balutis’s point necessarily distracts from the need for good leadership, it doesn’t mean that management isn’t absoluteely essential — and perhaps way too overlooked.