An effective public works technically knowledgeable

Andrew Lemer, Ph.D.
President, The MATRIX Group, LLC
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 ninth 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

It takes some time to become a public works leader. Years can be spent getting an education in schools and on the job. Some people learn more quickly than others and some get lucky breaks, but you do not see public works prodigies coming straight from high school into the pros. To be a public works leader, a person must accumulate the knowledge it takes to do the job right and use that knowledge effectively. It is a never-ending challenge.

"Knowledge," wrote 18th-century essayist and politician Joseph Addison, "is that which, next to virtue, truly raises one person above another." We've all had the experience of not getting the prize—a top test score, a job—because we didn't have a key piece of information at the crucial moment. Having knowledge does not assure that you will be successful, but it certainly improves the odds. The time spent getting all that schooling and on-the-job training proves valuable when what you learned helps you to know how to solve a tough problem.

You cannot know everything, of course. But as Samuel Johnson, another 18th-century Englishman, wrote, "Knowledge is of two kinds: We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information about it." A large proportion of what we learn along the way is knowledge of the second kind. Every successful leader must from time to time do some reading or research and rely on others who know a thing or two themselves.

Also, all areas of knowledge are not equally useful all the time for the public works leader. The sayings of dead English writers are helpful for drafting an article for a general readership, but are not of much value in deciding when to apply a seal coat or to flush the filters. Technical knowledge in public works has to do with the way things work, with the engineering, science, and—yes—art of building, operating, and maintaining facilities and delivering services.

But anyone who spends some time in public works learns pretty quickly that the important knowledge is not restricted to pavements, primary treatment, and the like. A public works leader is called on to deal with matters of finance, personnel, administration, politics and more. For practical purposes, all of this is technical knowledge needed to be a public works leader. Knowing a few good jokes, as well, does not hurt. For many, the opportunity to explore such a broad and varied scope of knowledge is part of the attraction and reward of leadership.

It is hardly a surprise, I suppose, that people living during the Industrial Revolution in 18th-century England were particularly interested in the importance of knowledge, how to get it, and how to use it. To quote another of them (the fourth Earl of Chesterfield, Philip Stanhope), "Knowledge of the world is only to be acquired in the world, and not in a closet." Now, I spent quite a few years in school before going out to work, and would be the first to admit that a good bit of that time was effectively spent in the closet. (Contrary to my children's opinions, I did have a social life; I won't bore you with the explanation of what M.S. and Ph.D. mean, but I trust you know what B.S. is.) Being out in what we often call the "real world" (although I hesitate to use the term for the zoos where I have worked) is for many of us the start of real education. One of the most important things I've learned in the course of this education is that it never stops. You have to keep on learning.

There are many ways to keep learning. APWA offers a wide and changing array of educational opportunities for the practicing professional, as do other professional associations, colleges and universities. Reading professional journals and trade publications can help expand your horizons and keep you up to date. Traveling, meeting and talking to colleagues working in other areas keeps you aware of the current state of practice and where we are headed. Taking advantage of such opportunities is an important part of becoming and remaining a public works leader.

Equally important, however, is maintaining an attitude of constant learning. Anyone who thinks she is too old to learn, to paraphrase scientist and philanthropist Caryl Haskins, was probably always too old. No matter how many years of experience we have, we are still students with a lot to learn and still to some degree in the closet. You have to keep looking for ways out.

It is not just that we cannot know everything...we can never know it all. Our knowledge is inevitably limited, and that in itself is useful knowledge. Confucius says, "The essence of knowledge is, having it, to apply it; not having it, to confess your ignorance."

An effective public works leader, having confessed his ignorance, will not stop. He will try to find out what he needs to know. This is the time for asking questions. Having a network of colleagues to ask is a wonderful resource for getting answers.

The right question is probably a leader's most useful tool, provided that you really hear the answer. As rock legend Jimi Hendrix once said, "Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens." When it comes to leadership in any field, I think, the distinction between knowledge and wisdom is very hazy.

The leader is the one who is called on to make difficult judgments about what is the right or wrong thing to do. Whether the leader is drawing on wisdom or knowledge, we expect her to have good judgment.

I wholeheartedly agree with Robert Kennedy's assessment, that "good judgment is the result of experience, and experience is unfortunately the result of bad judgment." The wise and knowledgeable leader understands that people—ourselves included—make mistakes. The experience gained in making mistakes expands our knowledge and hones good judgment. As I said before, it generally takes some time.

As we progress in our careers, we begin to find that what some of we learned earlier is becoming obsolete. It is a consolation to think that as we age we might be growing wise. I think that if you keep on learning, applying your knowledge effectively to do the job well, and finding out what to do when you do not immediately know, you will indeed be wiser as well as older.

Of course, there is always the alternative offered by that old folk advice: "When you do not know what you are doing, do it neatly." If your desk looks anything like mine, however (think strong seismic events and high winds), I would continue to opt for knowledge.

Andrew 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