Every government leadership course starts with the same statement: “Leadership starts at the top.” But what happens when top-level ideas get stuck halfway down the organizational pipeline—in middle management, creating a clog? Or worse yet, what happens when these ideas are twisted, manipulated, or forced to fit a middle manager’s personal agenda, rather than the organization’s?
Middle managers, especially in government agencies, tend to act like resistors, unintentionally or intentionally slowing down and clogging the communication and leadership pipeline. However, the leadership pipeline is unlike any other organizational pipeline, because it can flow from both the top down and bottom up–if the pipeline is clear of those clogs
Good leadership always starts at the top, then flows down because of the principles of organizational gravity. Bottom-up leadership, though, is much more difficult, because the employee is in a constant struggle against the force of organizational gravity.
In government, especially law enforcement, we love our tactics. We use tactics in fighting bad guys, in business negotiations, and occasionally in eminent domain takeovers or tax negotiations. When a governmental writer wants to unclog the leadership pipeline, they too, have their specialized tactic: communication. Writers are expert communicators trained to follow the stringent rules set by their industry. When a writer uses their natural ability to communicate, along with these three tactical leadership principles, unclogging the leadership pipeline is relatively simple.
Tactical Principle 1: Know the Rules
The first principle to master is to know the rules of your organization. Writers love rules. We have rules of grammar, rules of syntax, rules of rhetoric, and thousands of pages of rules dictated by style guides. But just knowing the rules of writing likly will not get you far in your organization. You must know its rules as well, and they normally come in the form of policy and procedure manuals. For example, my organization published several thousand pages of policies and procedures that specify everything from an officer’s use of force on violent suspects to how to correctly fill a car’s gas tank.
Knowing the details of your policies gives you leverage in your communication. Policies will tell you exactly what you need to do or not do in any situation. But when trying to unclog the leadership pipeline, policies also suggest who to contact—which otherwise can be difficult to find out in large organizations.
Writers can also use policy to quickly find the influential middle managers in their field. After you find a potential issue or clog in the pipeline, you can scan policies to find the middle managers who can provide input to your communications.
Tactical Principle 2: Know the People on Top
While you are mastering the rules, you need to find the people at the top who can help you, not just those in the middle. One of the best ways to meet people at the top of your organization is through formal mentorship programs. Most pair upper management to first- and second-level employees, allowing a lower-level employee to jump over middle management and go directly to the top.
If your agency does not have a formal mentorship program, ask someone who is in a higher position to help. The goal is to start working your way up the pipeline, and the only way to do that is through others. My original mentor was a middle manager when I started, but now he is the assistant chief.
Simply knowing powerful people will do little for you by itself. I know many CEOs, CFOs, and executives, and I doubt they could help if I reached out to them directly. But writers are not normal employees. We have mastered skills that many employees, including executive management, never will—how to write clearly, effectively, and with power.
A quick way to create relationships with executives is to volunteer on projects outside your assigned position but that still fall within your area of expertise. Avoid voluntarily taking on tasks outside your area of expertise, because doing so will cause you to step over people or break your chain of command—something that can quickly backfire.
I was an organized crime detective, but I also loved to teach. I volunteered at the police academy, then progressed to creating courses for the state of Arizona and eventually created courses designed for private sector companies. My department did not assign me to the training unit. Instead, I decided to volunteer my time and effort to help.
One of the connections I made in training was a new police executive who was struggling with writing and drafting emails and reports. I volunteered to teach him how to format his writing using white space and typography, and how to write using plain English. I worked with him for a few weeks until he could write it on his own.
Tactical Principle 3: Know Who You Are
The last leadership principle writers should master is understanding who you are. Knowing who you are sounds like a cheesy quote from a self-help book, but you’ll find it impossible to make changes or even influence others if you do not know who you are as a writer, an employee, and a person. Your likes, your dislikes, your writing style, your interpersonal style and your values all must align when trying to unclog the pipeline.
One huge advantage to mastering this principle comes when you know who you are, you can be more selective about the tasks you choose to accept or the issues you want to tackle. Instead of focusing on everything, you can devote all your energy to focus on one or two things really well.
Knowing how to play by the rules, knowing who to contact, and knowing who you are as a person are three powerful techniques you can use as a writer to unclog any leadership issue. but remember, unclogging leadership pipelines can be a slow process. Be patient, don’t rush, but start planning now and take these incremental steps. Go out, find a clog, help others along the way, and attack it. Use the lessons you learn from that first unclogging to help you identify more problem areas to tackle and solve.