Real Characters: Princess Leia, City Manager

This is another analysis in a series of articles I like to call “City Managers are Real Characters,” contemplating how your favorite fictional characters might fare in our field. Local government management isn’t for everybody. Does your sitcom sweetheart have the chops to handle a budget crisis?  Previously: Anthony Soprano, City Manager


By Matt Horn, City of Geneva, NY, City Manager

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The local government profession continues to struggle for a passing grade when it comes to women in leadership positions. The International City Managers Association (ICMA), along with just about every public administration professional group around has put forward troubling statistics on women in government. They estimate that only about 30% of department heads in local government are women, while women incumbents represent about 34% of Assistant City, County, or Town managers. The worst numbers are at the top–only 13% of chief administrative officials in local government are women.

How is your city or town faring in fostering leadership among women? If you’re searching for candidates, would your recruitment budget support a search that extends to a galaxy far, far away? If so, Princess Leia Organa may be just what you’re looking for.

Traits to Celebrate

Any individual who has held as many leadership posts as Princess/Senator/General Leia Organa must have an immense set of traits that round her out as a leader. It goes without saying that her experience should make her a standout in any resume review and get her onto the short list. Here’s a few that elevate her over her peers:

She’s Mission-Driven

Jim Collins, in his Good to Great work identifies Level 5 (executive) leadership as “building enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” Leia is constantly putting her personal advancement, and quite often, her personal safety at risk to deliver on her mission. Whether it’s being tortured by Darth Vader when captured as a spy, or being held captive by Jabba the Hut, she always kept her mission front and center in her mind’s eye.

Collins did later work in a Good to Great supplement for not-for-profits and governments. He added in the need for Level 5 leaders in these organizations to be able to lead inside of a diffuse power structure. Whether you’re dealing with union staffers, volunteer Board members, or City Council members, a local government leader must advance the organization not through command-and-control, but through clear communication of, and passionate advocacy for, the vision and mission of the community. Leia’s got this down pat.

She Has a Military Background

The statements on “command-and-control” style leadership above notwithstanding, Leia’s background as a General and operative in her various military posts bring something to the table that should set her apart from the crowd. Simon Sinek notes in his work Leaders Eat Last, “It is a leader’s job to take responsibility for the success of each member of his crew. It is the leader’s job to ensure that they are well trained and feel confident to perform their duties.” Sinek’s central inspiration for the work was leadership experiences he had observed in U.S. military personnel. Even though Leia’s experiences are a bit more galactic, the traits developed in military service translate well.

Incumbents with military experience have spent a period of their lives understanding leadership through a different lens than many who haven’t served. They understand the charge they are dealt when being assigned as leader of a team, and they take great pride in team performance. They are highly capable of disciplined thought, which is incredibly necessary when it comes to being self-managed. Leia’s particular experience, having served as both a ground operative and a high-ranking officer, give her the perspective of the leader and the led; and the impacts they have upon each other. This in invaluable in organizational management.

She Excels in a Diverse Team

There is no other way to say this: diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams six days a week and twice on Sunday. There are volumes of research out there on it, too numerous from which to quote. The simple fact is, that a leader who can manage a team diverse in background, experience, and approach, has a dramatically more voluminous toolbox at their disposal. Leia met the challenges inherent in intergalactic warfare with seasoned veterans, rookie Jedi, droids (short and tall), Wookies, Ewoks, and so many others. In each circumstance, she was able to (over time) learn the strengths of her team and use them to her advantage.

As managers, we should be consistently looking for ways to diversify our team, and learn the skill set that is inherent in each member. It not only makes for a more creative and productive work environment, but also develops us out as managers. Leia’s experience in this regard is unmatched.

Traits to Watch Out For

Even the very best leaders have some connection to the dark side of The Force. Leia’s traits wouldn’t disqualify her, but here are some things to keep an eye on:

She Has a Political Background

In the private world, the fact that Leia’s adopted mother is a Queen and her adopted father is a Senator (to say nothing of the power her biological father wields) would be no-brainers for a corporate recruiter. Political connections in nearly every job pay off. As with lots of other elements of the perfect candidate, the municipal world is different.

When considering the political connections of a potential candidate, you must do a 360-degree analysis. Yes, the son or daughter of a sitting State Senator may make for great connections now. But what about during the next election cycle, and after? What if “sitting” is replaced by “former?” Can the candidate stand on her/his own, regardless of political connections? What if the politics are a little closer to home? Leia, herself, was a Senator. Does that automatically exclude her from public management roles? The answer, as always, is “it depends.”

A former Mayor or Senator certainly knows lots of the “ins and outs” of the organization. The question usually is, “how will they be able to adjust to their new, very different role?” For Leia, if this is anywhere but Alderaan, she’s probably a safe bet. If she really wants to get into the City management game, I’d have her check the listings one asteroid belt over.

She’s Derisive Under Pressure

Like most of us, Leia has a tendency to get emotional in stressful situations. But calling Han Solo a “half-witted, scruffy looking Nerf herder” (whatever that is), isn’t going to relieve any pressure, and it’s not going to get him to perform any better. Witty and derisive are two different things, and they are often easily confused.

As managers, we have to recognize that if we’re under pressure on a given item, our key staff members likely are as well (if they are worth their salt). Great managers seek out ways to diffuse the stressful environment, then refocus the team on the issue at hand. This isn’t to say that if you’ve got a team member who is under-performing it should be ignored. But it should never be approached in a derogatory or degrading fashion. Constructive (and timely) feedback loops will win the day over personal attacks.

She Could Use Some Work-Life Balance

Who couldn’t? I know that ridding the universe of the dark side of the force is more than a full-time job, but take a long weekend to blow off some steam, already. “I’ll rest when I’m dead” is a self-fulfilling prophecy. In “high performance” management circles, this is by far the number one personal development advice given. It’s biology–a well-rested mind is a sharp mind. Attacking a problem with a fresh set of eyes and a clear head results in more creative solutions and less stress.

Pick a time at night when the phone gets turned off. Set boundaries for when you will and won’t respond to emails. Set clear limits on weekend work. I’ve been a local government manager for over 15 years, and can count on one hand (with fingers left over) the number of times that an email response after 9 p.m. was critical to the project. Be sure to communicate this to your staff as well. If you’ve set a personal email boundary of not sending emails after 1 a.m. (seriously, that’s your boundary??), then be clear with your staff that you aren’t expecting an immediate answer.

Given all of this, has Leia moved from your “maybe pile” into the top 3 for interviews? In my book, it’s a solid yes. She’s a fiercely loyal, mission-driven manager who knows how to use her team. She will go to the ends of the galaxy to deliver on your community’s vision. Her rough edges would likely be smoothed out in a less stressful environment (City Council meetings are nothing compared to being shackled in Jabba the Hut’s lair), and I believe that her political savvy is a plus in any government outside of her hometown.