The Top 5 Responsibilities of Great Multi-Sector Leaders

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Today’s city leaders often operate in messy, politically-charged, complex environments – but a few simple guidelines can help them bring their “best self” to the tasks that lie ahead.

(photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Paul J. Wiedefeld, the General Manager and CEO of Washington’s Metro system, will need to successfully navigate a multi-sector environment in order to restore the system and condense three years of maintenance into a single year. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

This is a guest post by Dr. Natalie Houghtby-Haddon, Associate Director of The George Washington University Center for Excellence in Public Leadership.

I have been thinking about leadership as I watched with interest as Paul J. Wiedefeld, the General Manager and CEO of WMATA (Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area Transit Authority), took drastic — but necessary — steps to, for want of a better word, “heal” the Metro system. Faced with cascading safety issues, loss of confidence in the reliability of the system by riders, and financial and political difficulties, Wiedefeld shut down the entire rail system on March 16, which served as a wake-up call to the region that safety was even more of an issue than we might have thought — and that he was serious about fixing the system.

On May 19,  he released the “Safe Track Plan,” detailing how WMATA was planning to condense three years of maintenance into a single year. The plan will expedite the restoration of the system by giving metro employees more time to actually do the necessary repair work by shutting down portions of the system completely at planned times, while also reducing the number of hours the trains run on the weekends, in particular, to give workers more than the 33 hours each week they’ve had to do any kind of maintenance. In recent days he has “let go” approximately 20 senior managers, following a closed door meeting with all 650 of Metro’s managers to get them on board with the new, truly safety-focused organization.

Reactions to Wiedefeld’s actions and the Safe Track Plan have been largely positive, although there have also been criticisms. But anyone who has used the roads to commute into D.C. in the past few months has experienced how necessary a well-functioning, safe, and reliable Metro system is to the well-functioning of the region, particularly for reducing stress from long and frustrating commutes.

Wiedefeld is leading this effort in what is a messy, politically-charged, complex environment — the greater Washington, D.C. metropolitan region. His stakeholders include not only the riders, but the local governments who fund the system; Congress and the Federal government, which play multiple roles, including funding and oversight; the WMATA Board of Directors, who are elected officials with their own constituencies; the visitors to the Nation’s Capital who expect to be able to get around town easily; and the employees of Metro — on both the bus and rail sides of the house. Wiedefeld is, whether he knows it or not, what we at GW CEPL call a “Multi-Sector Leader.”

Dr. A.J. Robinson, who teaches in GW CEPL’s Master’s in Public Leadership, has identified five responsibilities of a multi-sector leader. The multi-sector leader must:

1. Assess the theater and the performers

2. Identify the agendas and potential sources of noise

3. Manage competing agendas and reduce the noise

4. Inspire loyalty to shared goals, ideals, and purpose

5. Mobilize the group toward an extraordinary achievement

How successful Mr. Wiedefeld will be in achieving the goal of a safe, reliable Metrorail system may depend on how successfully he navigates the multi-sector environment in which he is leading. But he has started well — by stepping out with courage to make the hard decisions that have negative consequences in the short run, in order to achieve positive outcomes in the long run. He is, it seems, bringing what we call his “best self” to the task that lies before him, utilizing his capabilities and his experiences to do what is right for the Metrorail system, and therefore for all who depend upon it.

How about you? Are you bringing your best self to the leadership challenges and hard decisions that lie before you? Are you leading with courage in whatever complex environment confronts you?

We hope so — but if not, consider attending some of GW CEPL’s leadership and professional development offerings. We will give you not only tools and techniques, but especially the confidence to lead with an open mind, an open heart, and an open will — elements that enable you to be your best self. Be in touch to explore what might be a good fit for you!

About the Author: Dr. Natalie K. Houghtby-Haddon is the Associate Director of The George Washington University Center for Excellence in Public Leadership (GW CEPL), and an Associate Professor in the GW College of Professional Studies. She is also the Academic Program Director for the Center’s two graduate programs, the Master of Professional Studies in Public Leadership with a Specialization in Multi-Sector Management and the Graduate Certificate in Organization Performance Improvement. She is one of the National League of Cities University (NLCU) faculty members for NLCU’s 2016 Leadership Summit, which focuses on Multi-Sector Leadership, and she is on NLCU’s Board of Advisors as well.