An effective public works leader...maintains balance

Andrew C. Lemer, Ph.D.
The Matrix Group, LLP
Baltimore, Maryland
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

Note: The APWA Leadership and Management Committee has published the brochure entitled "Public Works Leaders' Core Competencies." The brochure is based on a survey of public works officials and those who employ them to determine the most important characteristics of an effective public works leader. These "Baker's Dozen" core competencies help public works professionals recognize and develop leadership talent. Included in this issue is the second in our series of core competencies recommended by the committee. For more information please contact Ann Daniels, APWA Director of Technical Services, at (800) 848-APWA or at

The life of a public works leader certainly offers variety.

You deal with colleagues, employees, and bosses; customers, the general public, and elected officials; complex engineering systems, money, the weather, and more. It's a job, but it's also a calling, helping to create a safe and secure setting for people to live their lives and raise their children. The work can be consuming, but at the day's end you go home, where family, friends, personal interests, creditors, and others compete for your attention.

So much to do, so little time! Being an effective public works leader is a lot like walking a tightrope: You have to maintain balance.

From my own experience at least, I think there are at least three things an effective public works leader has to do to stay aloft. First, you have to maintain perspective. Next, you have to recognize that you cannot do everything at once. Finally, you have to acknowledge that if you are out of the action yourself you cannot get the job done.

For example, I once had to make an important presentation to a high-ranking Asian government official. I had a team of about 40 people working with me in North America and Asia on the project that we were going to be presenting. If the presentation went well, we would all continue to work and eventually the project—essentially a large industrial park—might be developed. The point was to bring jobs and increased income to the community where we were working, although some of us might also have been concerned about our next paychecks. If we did a poor job, everything could come to screeching halt, regardless of how good our ideas might be.

One of my very creative teammates had played an important part in developing those ideas. He and three others of our team were to meet at the project site to prepare and then make our presentation. Four of us had arrived and were having dinner when a message arrived that our creative colleague felt he could not be with us as planned; he had some other pressing engagement. We would simply have to postpone the presentation, his message said.

I had to assume that he had his reasons for sending his message, but from my perspective, of course, postponement was not an option. When the boss—in this case, our client the government official—tells you to be there, you don't say at the last minute that it isn't convenient. Four of us had already traveled halfway around the world to be together. I could not order our missing person to immediately get on an airplane.

His role in the team was important, but was he irreplaceable? I finished my beer and telephoned him to say that we would miss his company, but we would have to go on without him.

Battlefield doctors are sometimes forced to apply triage when casualties are heavy, sorting the wounded into three groups: those whose wounds are not likely to be life threatening even if medical attention is delayed for a while; those who are so severely wounded that they may die even with immediate attention; and those for whom quick attention may make the difference between life and death. The third group has first priority when the doctors cannot get to everyone right now.

Our situation as we prepared for the presentation only seemed like a life-or-death matter to us, of course. I knew that if I spent a lot of time and energy trying to convince our colleague to change his plans, I would be hurting our chances of doing a good job without him, by diverting myself from the work I and my other teammates had ahead of us as well as by upsetting myself about our situation.

In the end, the presentation went very well. After it was finished and I had returned home, I took some time off to recover.

Our creative teammate, by the way, changed his plans and did get on the airplane; he arrived a day later than I had expected, but in time to do his part and to be forgiven by the rest of us. I had the pleasure several years later of walking down the main road of the industrial park where workers were producing high-tech electronic devices for export to Europe and the United States. I still chuckle when I think about how I felt and how my colleagues looked when the message was first delivered.

Another time, I was on the other end of the message. Just as I was preparing to leave on a business trip (to make a presentation, I'm afraid...consultants do a lot of that), my wife went into labor. I had to ask a colleague to make the trip for me. I had my reasons, and my wife and daughter seem to agree that in this case I made the right choice. I don't always get such respect at home.

My daughter actually learned to walk a tightrope. When she first started, she wore a harness with a rope attached. The rope went up over a pulley and down to her teacher, really more of a mentor, who could hold her up if she lost her balance. The arrangement helped her increase her confidence and willingness to make the mistakes needed to learn how to stay on the tightrope. With practice, she got the feel for it.

There are aids one can use. My daughter holds a pole to help maintain her balance. As William Arthur Ward wrote, "A well-developed sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope of life." Being able to appreciate the humor in your own situation always works wonders when the job gets stressful.

If you're walking a tightrope, you might think that maintaining balance is really a necessity for survival. So it is for being an effective public works leader as well.

But there is more to it. Karl Wallenda, patriarch of a famous family of circus performers, once said, "Being on the tightrope is living; everything else is waiting." Maintaining balance—in our work and in our lives generally—is the means to achieving a fulfilling and satisfying existence. If you can keep your balance, even when things get shaky and everyone is watching, not only will you be an effective public works leader, you will enjoy the thrill!

Dr. Andrew C. Lemer can be reached at (410) 235-3307 or at

Core Competencies at a Glance

  • Possesses Integrity
  • Is Accountable
  • Is Decisive
  • Is Public Service Oriented
  • Empowers Others
  • Is Deliberate
  • Is a Communicator
  • Shows Respect for Others
  • Is Technically Knowledgeable
  • Manages Resources
  • Is Resilient
  • Delegates
  • Maintains Balance