Entrepreneurs in the Public Sector: Leadership Is the Key

Light bulbs in a row with one being on Public sector entrepreneurial initiatives serve the public by improving economic prosperity and creating jobs. Many well-known technological advances have their roots in government funded research—global positioning systems (GPS), speech recognition software, lactose-free milk, LED lighting, even the Internet itself—they all owe a portion of their success to government funded agencies.

However, we cannot lose sight of the critical role leadership plays in the successful execution of these ideas—specifically, leadership courage in three forms: going against the grain when necessary; promoting big picture thinking; and doing the right thing.

Going against the Grain: When the Air Force Research Laboratory decided to establish the Entrepreneurial Opportunities Program, leaders had to work through legal and policy challenges to provide an opportunity for sabbatical and spinning off commercial products. This is something we have come to expect from Silicon Valley and universities; however, leadership courage was the key ingredient that provided the passion and drive to do what was best for the public.

Big Picture Thinking: Leadership courage sometimes includes the will to define the future and create organization models that advance public service beyond expectations. This is a key difference between management and leadership. Looking beyond present conditions, formulating a view of the future, and embracing the art of the possible creates the conditions where technology transfer and entrepreneurism in the public sector can occur.

Doing the Right Thing: In this context, leadership courage means moving beyond checking the necessary boxes to thinking about what is missing from the public service equation. This is a leadership trait often associated with change management and it requires a confidence to explain change.

Good leadership leads to empowerment and innovation. It can be defined only when it surfaces in behavior that pulls the agency beyond the norm.

The skills that have enabled public sector innovation and technology transfer can be learned. Such learning is predicated upon a leadership development framework that highlights entrepreneurism as a developmental pillar. Even without an agency focus on technology transfer, an entrepreneurial mindset can enhance the way an agency approaches public service innovation, continuous improvement, and measures of efficacy. Agencies need to find ways to reinforce training and provide for practical applications through coaching or mentoring. This creates a safe harbor environment for trial and error. Our government should leverage the advantages of leadership development to ensure that ideas for technical innovation and technology transfer are brought forward in the spirit of improving public service and economic prosperity.

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