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Effective Leadership

What does it take to be an exceptional leader, or even simply a good one? Fire chiefs and other government leaders are missing out on a crucial ingredient if they only look to the private sector for the answer.

November 19, 2018 
By Len Garis

Good leaders have mastered many forms of communication What does it take to be an exceptional leader

That ingredient – a strong inner core of character, integrity, ethics and values – is key to being a truly effective leader in government: one who gets the job done in a way that shows genuine respect and concern for everyone involved.

It is the element of public trust that makes leadership far more complicated in the public sector than in the private sector, notes Darryl Plecas, co-author of The Essentials of Leadership in Government – Understanding the BASICS, published in March 2018 through the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) in British Columbia.

Public-sector leadership “requires a more comprehensive discussion, and a more nuanced and values-based approach, than leadership that is focused on profit margins,” said Plecas, a UFV professor emeritus, two-term MLA and speaker of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia.

The assertion is based on extensive research of business, academia, government and public-sector leadership, combined with decades of on-the-job experience by authors Plecas, Colette Squires, sessional faculty member at the Justice Institute of B.C. and instructor at Trinity Western University, and Len Garis, fire chief for the City of Surrey, B.C., and an adjunct professor at UFV.


The investigation led to the creation of a framework called the BASICS, an acronym representing the behaviours, aspirations, skills, information commitments, communication commitments and sustainability commitments of a good government leader. A strong inner core is at the heart of the BASICS model.

“More than ever, organizations are crying out for leaders who are responsible, principled, ethical, and have the courage to do the right thing,” the authors wrote. “We need government leaders who not only have the skills and behaviours of good leadership, but who guide their work with a moral compass and an ethical, principled core.”

Not surprisingly, the behaviours of a good leader – the B in BASICS – are rooted in their strong inner core. Good leaders foster genuine collaboration. They invest in people and have a genuine concern about their well-being and success. At the same time, they encourage innovation, have vision, and the courage to make the tough decisions.

A good leader’s aspirations are guided by a strong moral compass as well. They are committed to “getting to yes” with others through win-win approaches. They seek to inspire and motivate others, and have a strong commitment to excellence in every aspect of their organization. They have a positive approach, but are also thoughtfully skeptical. Good leaders are also loyal to their organization and those who work with them.

Good leaders must have a wide variety of skills – and again, how they apply those skills is shaped by their inner values. They need good verbal, presentation and written skills, as well as active listening skills to resolve conflicts. They need to have the skills to coach and build their team and, at the same time, be able to evaluate performance and provide meaningful feedback. They must have strong analytical, problem-solving and decision-making skills. Having good organizational skills and being able to manage resources, assets and finances is also important.

To be a good leader also requires making a number of commitments to one’s self. In terms of information commitments, leaders must be willing to seek feedback about their own weaknesses as part of striving to become better leaders. They must be committed to knowing the concerns and aspirations of those they work with, as well as knowing their organization’s business. They must be committed to data measurement, making decisions based on evidence, and knowing what is going on in the world around them.

The communication commitments of a good leader are about expressing sincere gratitude and appreciation to others for work well done, as well as cultivating open, transparent and easy communication. Good leaders also encourage input and are committed to improving information-sharing.

A good leader’s sustainability commitments encompass both human and operational concerns. They foster healthy workplaces with highly engaged and committed employees, and where upcoming leaders are groomed and trained to ensure organizational growth.

Good leaders create an internal culture of continuous improvement and ongoing assessment, while also working to improve the organization’s brand externally.

People at all levels of government, and in all roles, can benefit from learning more about what it takes to be a better leader. Do not confuse management and leadership. Whereas management is about tasks and processes, leadership is about inspiring and activating people – a skill that is useful for anyone who manages or works alongside others. While not everyone is a born leader, everyone has some of the necessary characteristics, and with guidance can work to develop others.

For some, developing the inner core of a good leader will be the hardest part. “Find a way to nurture your inner core, your moral compass that will guide your path,” the authors wrote. “For many, this is not just an intellectual exercise; it is akin to a spiritual journey. There is often a transcendent aspect to the inner core of good leaders who are truly transformational in their workplaces. Find out about that, do some digging and exploration to discover what that is truly about.”

Another challenge on the journey towards being a better leader is getting honest feedback from colleagues and employees on your performance. A 360-degree tool, a type of anonymous questionnaire, can be an effective way to evaluate performance in yourself or others, and to obtain constructive feedback. A sample 360 tool is provided in The Essentials of Leadership.

Since its release, the book has received accolades from successful North American leaders and leadership experts, and has been added to the reading list for leadership students at the University of Alberta.

“The chapters are easy to read, interesting, down to earth and loaded with practical advice,” Dr. Louis Hugo Francescutti, professor of public health at the University of Alberta and past president of the Canadian Medical Association and Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, said in his review of the book. “If you are an inspiring leader, put this book on your self-improvement list.”

Renowned U.S. leadership coach and best-selling author, Dr. Marshall Goldsmith, called the book a “foundational resource for government leaders,” and applauded it for addressing how to sustain the impact of effective leadership.

“How often have you seen a good leader leave his or her post and have the good work that was accomplished be destroyed by the next leader who assumes the role? This book provides a solution to this and many other previously unresolved issues that are faced by leaders in government.”

There is no such thing as a perfect leader. But for those willing to commit to this challenging but rewarding journey, good leaders may become great, and great leaders may become the kind of exceptional leaders that have a positive lasting effect on the people and communities they serve.

The book can be downloaded for free at

Len Garis is the fire chief for the City of Surrey, B.C.; an adjunct professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and associate to the Centre for Social Research at the University of the Fraser Valley; a member of the affiliated research faculty at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York; and a faculty member of the Institute of Canadian Urban Research Studies at Simon Fraser University. Contact him at

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