An obituary that ran last week in a Richmond, Virginia daily newspaper precisely articulated the national mood.
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It read: "Faced with the prospect of voting for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Mary Anne Noland of Richmond chose, instead, to pass into the eternal love of God.”
Mary Anne Noland, apparently, was not alone. The obituary went viral on social media, demonstrating the degree to which many were lamenting the presidential choices for 2016.
Yes, it’s a national pastime to rip on politicians. But if you don’t like your choices, I’m going to tell you something that you might not want to hear:
It’s your fault.
If you are reading this publication, you are likely among the 2.2 million private sector leaders in the U.S. who complain that we should have better leaders in government, but who are unwilling to serve.
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(And I’ll admit it. With no immediate plans to run for president, it’s my fault too.)
But, really, is there any better case to be made for creating a new and better political class than this election? Our elected officials are just the face to a bigger more chronic shortage of public service talent.
One thing is a fact: public service is not the first choice for our best up and coming leaders. Only 4 percent of Harvard grads in the 2015 outgoing class had any intention of going out to serve in government. And only 2 percent of private sector leaders vow to serve in the public sector, according to my research.
Pundits have posited many reasons for this sad state of the State. Our smartest graduates are heavily recruited to financial and consulting jobs. And in later life, there is no clear road to engage in civic activities. There is also a long and profound distrust of government.
Is this not a self-fulfilling prophesy?
Such cynicism is a symptom, not a solution. If government is no longer inspirational, then we need more, not fewer, talented people in public service today. Unfortunately, millions of leaders in the private and non-profit sectors decline to help their country, their state, their county or the town where they live. They see the "public" brand as damaged goods.
It wasn't always so. A half-century ago, during the Kennedy administration, public service reached, perhaps, what is its peacetime zenith, with the young and idealistic president's famous inaugural call: "Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for you country." What followed was a man on the moon, the Peace Corps, and the Civil Rights Act.
Imagine if government service became “cool.” The Peace Corps is cool. Teach for America is cool. And I believe there is no better application of mid- to late-career leadership than in government service.
Here in Colorado, there is a nonprofit program that is working to clone that era’s ambitious DNA: The Colorado Governors Fellowship Program. It was inspired by the White House Fellows program established under President Johnson in 1964, which enrolls emerging executives into government internships and encourages them as private citizens to serve public agendas.
In the Colorado program, every year an accomplished class of 20 business and nonprofit executives will spend a year learning alongside current and past government leaders.
Key to success in such polarized times: it has bipartisan support, it has the leadership of the current Governor John Hickenlooper, himself an entrepreneur who built Colorado’s first brewpub – and is endorsed by his predecessors Governors Bill Owens and Bill Ritter.
The idea is that “Colorado will breed hundreds of talented executives that view public service as part of their path,” says Ryan Heckman, chairman of Quarterly Forum, the Colorado leadership organization that launched the fellowship.
Such cross-pollination of ideas from the private sector to the public sector, and vice versa, can create astonishing benefit.
Just look at the business-leader-turned-politician that I like to call “the Babe Ruth of Governors,” Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. After a successful career as a CEO for a small company, and then a senior exec for Eli Lilly, he ran for governor. Once in office, he used the leadership skills he honed in the private sector and took a $600m deficit and achieved a $370m surplus within one year, and a $1.2b surplus in 2 years. Governor Daniels was later re-elected to office by the widest margin in his state’s history.
There is a benefit to knowing how to calculate return-on-investment in government, and there are lessons for good citizenship to be learned to guide the private sector as well.
While nuanced, the skill set for great leadership doesn't differ much between business and government. When speaking with business leaders who move into government roles, I hear many references to “low-hanging fruit” and opportunities for prioritization, management development, and bringing a cadence of transparency and accountability to otherwise murky processes. The needs in the public sphere are urgent, and we need our smartest leaders in the game, if we expect government performance to improve. A government is only as good as who is serving in it, right?
If you are reading this, you (Yes YOU! Especially since you have read this far) should consider a stint in government. Run a department for a Governor. Run for City Council. Play an advisory role in your area of expertise.
The decline in income? Or stepping off the corporate fast track? Serving for a couple of years is a fraction of your career. Think of what will you gain in experience, education and network. Chances are, you will find meaning and purpose in using your leadership skills to make a broader impact on society.
Colorado may be helping stimulate this movement of private sector leaders into government. Will you commit to doing a stint in government service sometime in your career? Or will you deprive yourself of a leadership adventure of a lifetime?
Dr. Geoff Smart is a New York Times bestselling author, Chairman & Founder of ghSMART, a leadership consultancy