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The Keys to Becoming a "Leader"

By Stan Finkelstein, Chair, Washington State Public Works Board

In this era of declining approval ratings for national, state and local leaders, strong and effective leadership is one of those qualities that the citizenry is seeking from its elected officials. This article will explore the questions of what is leadership; what are the characteristics and attributes of leadership; how can elected officials become leaders and re-instill confidence in government; and what does the electorate expect of their elected officials? This article is intended to be the first of several addressing the issue of how elected officials can become leaders.

Why Leadership and What Constitutes Leadership?

Most studies indicate that the citizenry harbors a disdain for lethargy in government. They want positive change, and improvements in their quality of life. While they want their elected officials to reflect the mood of their constituents, they recognize that change is inevitable in a dynamic society and they may have to accept some negative downsides (increased taxes or regulations) to facilitate the type of community that they want.

When applied to government, there is no easy definition of "leadership". Leadership is often defined as the ability of public officials to cause a positive change in the well-being of their constituency. It is the ability to perceive of an issue needing to be addressed; deliberatively exploring alternative solutions; determining the appropriate course of action and encouraging those with conflicting opinions to work towards a harmonious resolution. It is also the ability to get a "buy-in" from stakeholders and constituents. Leadership may also require that elected officials support unpopular issues; take risks; and acknowledge failure, and accept a mid-course correction.

While there is no easy answer to the question as to how elected officials can re-instill confidence in government. The citizenry wants their electeds to perceive of problems and work harmoniously towards solutions; they want the absence of polarization within the legislative body and between the executive and legislative branches; they want solutions that minimize disruptions to the community; and they want positive outcomes.

What are the Characteristics of Leadership?

While there are numerous characteristics that define the skills required to becoming an effective leader, inherent in that chemistry is the need to be a team player, step back and listen to the interests of others; and arrive at accommodation with the disparate interests of the impacted parties. Following is a brief list of some of the characteristics of successful leaders: THE

  1. Ability to respond to a crisis.
  2. Ability to influence the actions of others.
  3. Ability to perceive of the need for change and to effectuate change.
  4. Ability to inspire confidence and gain the support of others.
  5. Ability to change the societal "mindset".
  6. Ability to entice the private sector to "give something back".
  7. Ability to use "personal" power or political "capital" to inspire the positive actions of recalcitrant parties.
  8. Ability to perceive of a divisive public issue and bring it to amicable closure.
  9. Ability to acknowledge mistakes, regroup and define an alternative course of action.

The Attributes of Successful Leaders

The following list, primarily developed by author and trainer Carl Neu, describe the attributes of effective leaders. They are equally applicable to mayors and county executives and to city and county council members and commissioners. While for some these attributes are innate, for many they have to be nurtured and developed over time.

  1. Leaders engage people and their energies rather then give them ready answers and quick-fix solutions; they seek input from others
  2. Leaders inspire themselves and others to their very best efforts; they motivate others to perform at their highest levels.
  3. Leaders focus on the future and get agreement on common visions, goals, priorities and direction; they recognize that the future will be characterized by change.
  4. Leaders empower and support rather than control and direct people toward achieving desired outcomes; they empower their colleagues and subordinates.
  5. Leaders engender a perspective of "we" and partnerships; they work as team members and don't seek acclaim for their achievements.
  6. Leaders are principled persons possessing good moral behavior, character, values and integrity; they generally have impeccable reputations and high principles.
  7. Leaders promote mutual respect and civility in all relationships; they are non-confrontational and show respect for opposing points of view.
  8. Leaders are willing to acknowledge their shortcomings and admit their mistakes; they recognize their fallibility and own up to their mistakes.
  9. Leaders rarely take credit for their accomplishments and graciously share praise with their colleagues; they recognize the value of collective decision making and the importance of sharing the credit for positive outcomes.


The concept of leadership is an often misunderstood quality. It is not the ability of an individual to take control of the policy making process and force predetermined solutions to pressing problems. Rather it is the ability of individuals to step back, examine pressing issues and work collegially to arrive at agreed upon solutions. It is the ability to foment a sense of teamwork; engage stakeholders in developing solutions; and inspire the confidence of the citizenry. It may even require abandoning one's preferred course of action in favor of a more acceptable collective approach. It requires a vision of the future; as well as the ability to sell solutions to a sometime wary constituency. It is also the recognition by elected officials that they have derived authority from their voters and their mission is to improve the quality of life of their jurisdiction. In so doing, they can re-instill confidence in government by demonstrating their capacity to address and resolve difficult issues.

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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.