Why We Don’t Have Leaders in the Public Sector

Leadership Lessons from the Public Sector

There are reasons some people are lifelong public servants and others work in the real world. Whether it’s the military, public education, a state legislature or a municipal government: a job void of profit responsibility is generally void of any true accountability. Without accountability, leadership can become unnecessary and the skill set (if it ever existed) will atrophy.

As we wrote in a recent post about school administrators, the people in these roles “are generally not great leaders… They’ve never had to live by a P&L or make real personnel decisions. They spend our tax dollars like Monopoly money, and they do all of this with no real accountability.”

Examples of this abound and we never have to look very far to reinforce this belief. Occasionally, some move by one of these leadership amateurs so shocks our conscience that we feel compelled to comment… much like a recent decision by management at an Atlanta-area county office that actually made us cringe.

Layoffs Happen

Last Friday in DeKalb County (GA), workers in the planning and development office were told there were significant layoffs coming and that they would have to wait until Monday to learn their fate.

Nothing strange here, right? Layoffs are happening all over America in the private sector, so it seems natural that these would eventually reach those working in a cash-strapped county office. The differences, however, between this layoff and those that are occurring in the real world are the communication skills and compassion shown by DeKalb County’s managers.

The 100+ employees in this office were told to return any county equipment and pack up their belongings and leave… without being notified if they were included in the layoff or not. You see, their managers wanted everyone out first, and then they would tell the lucky few (19 to be exact) to return with their things and resume their duties.


(Excuse the texting in the middle of a post, but WTF? does not mean Wednesday, Thursday, Friday; and its use is appropriate in this case.)

While leaders in the private sector are often (rightfully) accused of being less compassionate than their public sector counterparts, employee relations as practiced by DeKalb County went the way of the three-martini lunch in the real world. Thankfully, the fear of lawsuits or bad public relations helps to keep this behavior out of the for-profit companies. When it happens in the public sector, we have little recourse but to strongly denounce it.

Okay, We Denounced It

We didn’t raise this example to simply call attention to the lousy leadership provided by government entities in the Atlanta area. Rather, we believed this instance was simply another glaring illustration of how the lack of a profit motive coupled with a promotional system based on tenure (instead of ability or merit) leads to poor leadership, morale and employee effectiveness. (If you’ve ever had to get your driver license renewed, you know exactly what we mean.)

Leaders need accountability, goals and responsibilities – complete with consequences – in order to grow and deliver value to their organizations. Where we fail to provide these to our middle managers, you can argue we end up operating like a government agency.

What About the 100 People Carrying Boxes Filled with Desk Chachki?

DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis stepped in and said he was dissatisfied with how the process was being managed and ordered a delay of the layoffs. (We’re not sure why a county needs a CEO, but we’re glad someone with authority in the county has a little common sense.) The delay, however, will be a short one. Plans are in the works to save more jobs, but DeKalb’s planning and development office will deservedly lose more than half its current workforce… they’ll just do it with a little more dignity.