Leading Federal Bureaucracy – Nu Leadership Series

“ Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand.”
Colin Powell

Understanding employees is a critical ingredient for most organizations. Why is the federal system impersonal about federal employees’ needs in the workplace? What can effective leaders do to ease this attitude in the workplace? The rigidness of federal structure gets its roots from Weber and Taylor. Taylor’s scientific models provide specialization of work into narrow job specializations while Weber provides organizational standardization. These theories have combined to create a machine bureaucracy.

Unfortunately, this organizational inflexibility dampers creative employees and innovative mavericks. Nadler and Tushman, authors of Competing by Design, maintain that employees become alienated by the lack of variety, creativity, and motivation involved in this type of system. Although the federal government is an open system, it is heavily influenced by external forces. Therefore, political dynamics often influence government structure.

Influencing the government bureaucracy can be done in a four-step process, which is to (1) build a critical mass of key groups, (2) build political momentum, (3) build the perception of momentum in support of change by symbols, and (4) build and maintain a sense of stability by reducing anxiety-induced political activity. Leadership experts–Zenger, Musselwhite, Hurson, and Perrin– explain that contemporary managers who are averse to change are finding their organizations declining in quality, productivity, morale, and market share.

Finally, these organizational constraints make it difficult for organizational changes in the federal system. Therefore, federal officials need to be both persistent and patient when implementing organizational changes.


Nadler, D. & Tushman, M. (1997). Competing by Design. New York: Oxford University Press.

Zenger, J. Musselwhite, E., Hurson, K., and Perrin, C. (1991). Leadership in a Team Environment. Training & Development, 45 (10), 46.

© 2006 by Daryl D. Green