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Leadership: An Inherent or an Acquired Skill?

By Stan Finkelstein, Chair, Washington State Public Works Board

In the November 2013 issue of the Council/Commission Advisor, I acknowledged that the citizenry expects its elected officials to possess strong and effective leadership skills. I further described what I believe is leadership; its characteristics and the attributes of successful leaders. What I did not delve into is the age old issue of how can one becomes a leader.

Many believe that leadership skills are inherent and that one can not simply acquire them thru “on the job” training. In his book Leadership, Rudolph Giuliani suggests that “Leadership does not simply happen. It can be taught, learned, developed.” While there is no agreed upon definition of leadership as it applies in the public sector, most agree that the important characteristics of leadership are the ability of individuals to identify major issues; work collaboratively with others; and arrive at a collective solution. The element of individual leadership is the ability to be the catalyst for defining that solution and fostering an environment for its adoption.

How Can One Become a Leader?


After more than 40 years of working with state and local elected officials, I've concluded that there is no simple one size fits all recipe for leadership. Rather, while many may aspire to be leaders, there are several pathways to achieve that objective:

Step One - The first step for the aspiring leader is to believe that they one can be a leader. It is the intestinal fortitude to recognize that you have been elected by your constituents to contribute to the enhancement of your jurisdiction. It is the need to develop the confidence that you can impact the actions of your colleagues and thereby be a leader.

Step Two - Once having developed the necessary degree of self confidence, one should next step back and examine one's abilities and determine whether there is a specific area in which one has specific skills such as fiscal management, social services, planning, parks, or any other aspect of the responsibilities of the city or county. If so, and if that is not an area where one's colleagues had previously carved out a leadership role, that should be the initial area in which the potential leader should begin to hone their leadership skills. If on the other hand your area of expertise already has a leader, pick another. New “leaders” are often cautioned to select an area of expertise, as opposed to want to be a leader in all aspects of the array of public policy issues.

Step Three - Within the aforementioned area, one should determine whether there is an intermediate or long-term need for change. One should develop a vision for the future in that area. Although in many larger counties and cities the visioning process generally occurs during facilitated retreats, that is not generally the case for intermediate or smaller jurisdictions. Frequently, when local governments develop a “business as usual” mindset, it is individual “leaders” who often challenge the status quo.

Step Four - Next, the potential leader should engage his/her colleagues in one-on-one discussions regarding the particular issue or vision and the need for change. True leadership is the ability to be collaborative; to communicate; to compromise; and ultimately to convene the decision makers to address an issue. Key is the ability to understand small group dynamics and to listen and learn from one's colleagues. Potential leaders must recognize that the making of public policy is a collective action, and that one doesn't have all of the answers.

Step Five - A major element of leadership is what is often referred to as stakeholder management. Stakeholders are those parties, both within and outside the community who will be impacted by policy decisions. Those stakeholders will potentially include the citizenry; the business community; neighborhood groups; advocacy groups (e.g. environmentalists, bicyclists, senior citizens, etc); other governmental units; and all other parties affected by the proposed action. Leaders must encourage an open process and a leader must engage key stakeholders in dialogues regarding major issues. In so doing, leaders should encourage other legislative body members to participate in those discussions, while being mindful of not violating the Open Public Meetings Act.

Step Six - This is perhaps the most critical step in evolving as a leader. One must examine the issue that is being addressed; review the various perspectives of one's colleagues and stakeholders; weigh the pro's and con's of alternative solutions; and arrive at a recommended solution. This recommendation should be brought before the legislative body with the recognition that it won't make everyone happy, but hopefully will minimize the collective dissatisfaction. While politics is often described as “satisfying the irritated without irritating the satisfied,” that is also the definition of lethargy; business as usual. Leadership is the ability to be an agent for positive change.

Step Seven - The final step in the process is the adoption by the board of commissioners or the council of a solution. This generally occurs after public hearings, discussion amongst commissioners/council members, evaluation of amendments or alternatives, and a vote on final action. A true leader recognizes the importance of compromise and should never be wedded to one's own solution. That leader must be satisfied with his/her ability to have brought an issue before the body, defined alternative solutions and seen the issue addressed through the making of a public policy decision.

Step Eight - OOPS WE SCREWED UP"! While confession may be good for the soul, it can also be harmful to the ego. Invariable in the making of law public bodies make mistakes. Unintended consequences arise, or situations crop up that were never anticipated leading to adverse results. When those situations arise, it is a sign of a true leader when those mistakes occur that he/she acknowledges the problem and encourages review of the situation and the need for an alternative solution. We are all fallible and it is a sign of a confident leader that he/she can accept their mistakes.


Leadership is not a skill that one comes by easily. It requires that one develop the confidence to believe in one's ability to be a leader. One must identify a need or a vision that will enhance the well being of the jurisdiction. True leaders must be able to convene stakeholders and collaborate with other decision makers. A leader must also be able to communicate with all impacted parties; and must be able to compromise. Leadership requires that one graciously acknowledges mistakes and works towards lasting solutions. While being a leader may seem hard, it can be very satisfying.

It is my belief that leadership is an acquired skill; one that must be nurtured and developed over time. One should avoid charging ahead before understanding the chemistry of the commission or the council. The electors expect leadership from their commissioners and council members, but they disdain discord and rancor. An effective leader is one who can bring the resolution of an issue to closure in a collaborative and collegial manner.

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Photo of Stan Finkelstein

About Stan Finkelstein

Stan Finkelstein wrote for MRSC as a guest author for several years, and he also served as the Executive Director for the Association of Washington Cities from 1990 to 2009.

Stan passed away in 2020.