A Leadership Stimulus Package

Posted 02.25.2009

One of my favorite questions to ask an audience of leaders is, “How many of you, when you look back on your careers, can identify a time when your development as a leader was super saturated?  Was there an event or an assignment or a crisis when you had to step up and, in the process, really grew?”  Usually, every hand in the room will go up.  Every leader has had at least one of those experiences.

Well, with about 800 billion dollars of stimulus getting ready to flow through government programs and into the economy, a whole lot of leaders in federal and state government agencies are about to get the biggest development experience of their careers.

Worker1 Earlier this week, in the Washington Post, came the story of the staff of the home weatherization program of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.   In a normal year, they disburse about $2.6 million to weatherize the homes of 1,000 low income families.  Thanks to the stimulus package, they’ll be disbursing $65 million over the next two years and, hopefully, put a big dent in the waiting list of 22,000 homes.

If that doesn’t give you some pause, then how about this?  An NPR reporter this week sat in on the orientation for 32 new employees of the FDIC who heard this from their new boss Tom Murray:

"’And this is historical, what we're doing here. The part you are playing and the effort that we are doing is integral to helping the economy. The FDIC mission is to ensure the stability of the banking system,’ Murray says.

That last line, often heard at the FDIC, may seem overwhelming: Welcome to your new job, now all you have to do is ensure the stability of the banking system. No one gets up at the podium and says you are here to help us prepare for the largest number of bank failures in decades. “

Fdicemps So, there are going to be tens of thousands of government leaders who are going to get the biggest development experience of their lives in the next couple of years.  How will they pull it off?  One thing I know for sure is that they won’t be working in some sort of rote fashion from a playbook somebody hands them.  This just in – there isn’t a playbook.  Nothing of this magnitude has been done before.  All of these leaders are going to have to work with their colleagues and their stakeholders inside and outside of government to figure out how to spend the money wisely and, in the process, get the economy back on track.

You see, that’s the common denominator in every “changed my career and outlook” leadership story that I’ve heard.  The “what” is always very clear, but there is never anyone standing over the leader’s shoulder saying, “Now,  here’s how you do this.”   The development comes in figuring out how.  The good news is there is usually more than one way on how to do it.  That’s what fuels innovation and growth.

Do you want to grow the leaders in your organization?  Follow the advice of White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and don’t let a good crisis go to waste.  Give your managers a stretch assignment to go fix or leverage something that’s really important.  Let them figure out how to do it.  Someday, years from now, someone’s going to ask them about a time when they really grew as a leader.  They’re going to think about what you asked them to do and thank you for it.